Archive for Sunday, December 11, 1994

RHODES SCHOLAR SAYS TENSION WAS WORTH IT

December 11, 1994

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A KU graduate looks back on the experience of winning a Rhodes scholarship and considers a future made possible by the award.

Pam McElwee of Lawrence remembers the tension and euphoria that accompanied the Rhodes scholarship contest.

"Mostly the tension," said McElwee, who snagged one of the prestigious tickets to Oxford University in December 1992.

Between interviews with the Rhodes selection committee in Minneapolis, Minn., she was confined to a room with 13 other nominees. Everyone there knew only four Rhodes scholarships were available.

"Some really want to impress you," she said in an interview last week. "One woman was talking on and on about Chaucer. Another guy was talking about how he had taken up knitting. Can you believe it?"

After the tension came euphoria upon learning she was awarded an expense-paid trip to graduate school in Britain.

"I was surprised. Everyone at that level is so good," she said.

McElwee has been a jet-setter in the aftermath of the Rhodes competition two years ago.

Before winning the scholarship, she worked for Al Gore when he was a Tennessee senator; after winning, she concentrated on environmental policy at the White House for Vice President Gore during the first nine months of 1993.

"It was very interesting," McElwee said. "It was the very start of the whole Clinton administration. It was all hard work -- long days and working on weekends."

In October 1993, she entered Oxford and completed a one-year master's degree program in forestry.

McElwee returned to the United States and decided to take a breather from school. She was allowed to defer the remainder of her one or two years on the Rhodes payroll.

"It kind of clears your head," she said. "It's helpful as well on making me focus on what I want to do."

One complication about resurrecting her academic career at Oxford was that the Rhodes Trust pays students' educational costs only while they are enrolled and attending classes at Oxford. McElwee needed to conduct field work far from the university if she wanted to earn a doctorate.

"I needed a funding commitment from an organization for ... work on forest management in developing countries. I plan to go to West Africa," she said.

Her academic interest is exotic non-wood products -- medicines, for example -- and how commercialization of products affects local economies.

If all goes well this week during a meeting with United Nations officials, McElwee expects to obtain a $15,000 research grant from the UN. That would set the stage for her to complete her studies at Oxford.

She plans to take classes at KU in the spring semester, enroll at Oxford for a summer term and begin field work in fall 1995. Currently, she's waiting tables at a Lawrence restaurant.

McElwee, who also received Truman and Goldwater scholarships, said these high-dollar awards provided her with educational opportunities that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

"It's a long shot for anybody," she said. "But be persistent."

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