One is dark-haired, from Egypt (by way of Delaware) and former president of the Anscombe Society; he is a fearless public speaker, likes to invoke Aristotle and copy-edited the Witherspoon Institute's pamphlet "Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles" (first principle: "Marriage is a personal union, intended for the whole of life, of husband and wife").
The other is blond, from Michigan and a summer-analyst at a hedge fund in New York; he is a brilliant writer, likes to invoke Lacan and has worked for the Gay Family Rights Project (basic right: Homosexuals should have the same legal protections as heterosexuals, in particular as regards marriage and children).
This past week, these two gentlemen, Sherif Girgis '08 and Brett Masters '08, each won a Rhodes Scholarship, which funds two or three years of study at Oxford and is arguably the most prestigious postgraduate award around.
More remarkable, though, is that they are best friends.
To some extent it's probably because Girgis and Masters both love Italian. Both have letters of recommendation from my terrific colleague Simone Marchesi GS '00 and both were finalists for the Dante Prize of the Dante Society of America, which Girgis in fact won. And now: Nel mezzo del cammin ..., their Rhodes have crossed.
But that's not the whole story. Girgis and Masters have recognized that just because someone is a right-wing hyena/left-wing nutcase (choose one) does not mean that he or she is a fool and uninterested in spirited debate. I know this very well, for I'm friends with plenty of hyenas and nutcases and have taught and advised many students of each description over the past decade. But rarely have I seen two people who are not supposed to get along hit it off so well, be willing to listen to each other, argue vehemently and then agree to disagree over a glass of wine. It says something that Masters refers to Girgis in the moving final paragraph of his winning Rhodes essay; and it says something that Girgis, while waiting nervously for his District Committee to come out and announce the victors, received word that Masters had been chosen and took the time to send a number of us — including Christian Sahner '07, who won a Rhodes last year and who preceded Girgis at the helm of Anscombe — an exuberant thumbs-up message about his friend.
One of my most stressful Princeton pleasures is being the faculty adviser for the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. (I am keeping silent about the Marshall only because the 2008 winners have not yet been officially announced.) Along with Associate Dean of the College (and Dantean) Frank Ordiway '81 and his unflappable administrative assistant, Traci Miller, I spend countless hours each year, mostly between July and November, advising would-be candidates on everything from Oxford commas to degree program(me)s in Britain, tearing apart their essays, running mock interviews and providing free therapy. It is stressful because each year I dearly want everyone we work with to win — and because there is, quite frankly, a lot of pressure on major educational institutions to "beat" their rivals. But it is a pleasure because each year I get to talk with some of Princeton's best and brightest, young men and women about whom I will down the line be able to say, "I knew him when..." and "You won't believe this, but I once coached her on how to explain Banach spaces to a CEO." All three of this year's Rhodes winners — and all the others who almost won — are already stars, and if you haven't yet seen them shine, chances are you will soon, on a stage much larger than any in New Jersey.
All three? Yes, for we also have a winner from Canada this year. Meet Landis Stankievech '08, rocket scientist. Stankievech, an engineer who plans to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, is a committed Catholic and a forward on the ice hockey team. He just happens also to boast a sky-high GPA — except that to imply that he himself boasts of anything would be quite wrong since he is exceptionally modest. I regret that I barely got to know Stankievech in the course of the process, but some people simply don't need help.
If you're wondering how you can win a Rhodes next year, here are some tips: Run Anscombe (two of Princeton's last four winners), study Dante (three), be passionate about Catholicism (three) and solicit letters from John Fleming GS '63, Simone Marchesi and, well, me (two apiece). Seriously, though, pursue your interests with enthusiasm, get to know your professors and in the end write an honest, engagingly written statement that has a twist. Would you believe that Sherif Girgis, of all people, informed the Rhodes Trust that "For half my life, I was that woman"? It won him the prize — and I'll let him explain to you what he meant. Joshua Katz is a professor in the Department of Classics and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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