Thursday, December 5, 2013

“From Ghana to America, then back again: Dreaded Charter Flights and The Rhodes Interview”

Hello family, friends and fellow blog followers,

Sorry it has been so long since my last post; these past few weeks have been quite a whirlwind.

Here is a quick recap:

As I think many of you know, over the course of the summer, I was busy working on applications for the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. Both of these scholarships are nationally competitive and fund up to 2 years of graduate study in the UK. (More in-depth information for the scholarships can be found here:; The process of applying is as such: you spend your summer writing, re-writing, (and re-writing some more) personal statements and proposals for programs of study, procuring letters of recommendation (3 for Marshall; 8 for Rhodes), and going through university interviews to get institutional endorsement. Then, the application is submitted by October 1st. Candidates who pass through the initial application screening by the committee are then invited for an interview. In early November, I was notified that I had not been selected as a candidate to interview for the Marshall Scholarship, but was invited to interview for the Rhodes Scholarship. I could not interview via skype or phone call, so that meant that I needed to fly from Ghana back to the US. Luckily, West Virginia University paid my travel expenses because it is such a huge honor for the university to have a Rhodes finalist; WVU hasn’t had a winner or a finalist for the Rhodes in 18 years- since Carolyn Conner Seepersad won the scholarship in 1995. So, two weeks, one computer hard drive crash, many hours spent reading in the library, numerous emails to the ASPIRE office of WVU to make travel arrangements, and two flights (one of which was a charter flight from JFK to BWI that I honestly, all drama aside, thought was going to crash) later, I arrived in Baltimore, Maryland on November 16th. I was met by my dad and Brent, as well as a colder climate than Ghana. Straight from the airport, we went to my grandparents’ house for lunch, then my grandmother and I took off to the mall to go shopping for clothes I would need for the cocktail party and my interview (both are part of the interview process for Rhodes). I am proud to say we found a blazer, cocktail dress, and shoes in only an hour; I repeat: in one hour. Any girl, and to prevent from being deemed sexist, any guy who shops a lot, will tell you that finding dress for a formal event in an hour is a feat; yet alone the shoes and jacket to go with it. I was also elated because I absolutely loathe shopping and, admittedly, was ready to leave the moment we parked the car.

I stayed in Maryland through the weekend, then on Monday, my brother, Jon, chauffeured me to Dulles airport to catch a flight to Morgantown, where I would be until Thursday for interview preparation. For all of you northeasterners and others who have traveled via Dulles airport, you know how far removed and how much of a genuine pain in the ass it is to get there. My flight wasn’t until the afternoon, but Jon and I left mid-morning to make sure that we had plenty of time to get there; it’s a good thing we did because we definitely got a bit lost and had to do about 20 minutes worth of back tracking once we figured out we had deviated from the correct course. I arrived an hour before my flight (literally, right when I needed to) and luckily, there wasn’t a lot of people there, so I made it through security and to my gate with plenty of time until my flight left. I took a charter flight from Dulles to Morgantown. If I never have that experience ever again in my life, I will absolutely be O.K. with that. The plane was small and there were only about 12 passengers. I’d like to take a minute to pause and deviate from my line of thought to pose the question of whether, economically, it even makes any sense to have such a small flight, but I will refrain from going any further than that. To me the whole concept of flying doesn’t make sense: anything that heavy should not be able to fly, yet alone stay in the air once in flight. When you fly you really are putting your life and your faith in fate (and physics, aerodynamics, engineering, some other technical subjects I know nothing about, and a pilot who (hopefully) went to a great flight school, of course). Nothing will remind you of that more than a small charter plane fighting its way through wind gusts (or a small charter plane with a pilot who likes to make the descent suddenly, rather than gradually- as was the case with my flight from New York to Baltimore), which was exactly the situation I was in. I was extremely happy and thankful when we arrived at the Morgantown Regional Airport safely. I had to refrain from kissing the ground. Candidly, I don’t pray nearly as often as I should, but God definitely heard from me on the five flights I ended up taking over the two weeks I was home.    

For those who don’t frequent the Morgantown airport, I have to take a line or two to describe it: The smallest airport on Earth. There are no terminals; passengers disembark the plane at a tarmac, then walk to the building, where immediately to the right of the entrance is the mechanized belt for baggage claim, straight ahead is the ‘arrivals hall’ and to the left is the exit of the building. Two positives: you definitely don’t need to worry about getting lost/being unable to find whoever is meeting you at the airport, and you don’t have to think twice about whether your luggage will arrive.

Cate, who works in the ASPIRE Office at WVU and helped me throughout the application process for Rhodes and Marshall, met me at the airport and took me to Hotel Morgan, my home for the next three nights. The rest of the week was filled with Skype/phone calls to past Rhodes scholars (including Senator Hoylman of New York who was a Rhodes Scholar from WVU in the 80’s and Dr. Seepersad who is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin) to solicit their advice, mock interviews with professors of different subjects at WVU to simulate and prepare me for the interview I would have that Saturday, a mock cocktail party to prepare me for the one I would attend that Friday, advisor meetings and other meetings with various faculty of the university, including the Provost, the Dean of Eberly College, and the Director of Athletics, who was also a Rhodes finalist from WVU in the 1980’s. I also got to catch up with a few friends (unfortunately not everyone I was hoping to see), which was great. It was a busy week and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it.

Thursday afternoon I left from Morgantown, on yet another charter flight. We first went to Clarksburg to pick up more passengers before heading to Dulles. From Dulles I took another flight to Philadelphia, where the cocktail party and interview would take place. From the airport I hopped on a train to the Radnor Hotel, which, yes, was almost as pretentious as it sounds, but I was more than happy and willing to be pampered with such luxurious accommodation. I arrived around 9:00 PM and had a message with a phone number to call. It turns out Alec, one of the other candidates left his number for other Rhodes candidates so we could all meet before the process and have a drink together. I thought this was really thoughtful and nice of him. So after dropping my bags in my room, I went to the hotel’s restaurant to meet Alec and Ryan. They are both incredible and friendly people. Ryan, 24, is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh (WVU’s rival, ironically enough). He is very interested in community development, peace and conflict resolution, youth engagement and service learning, and has traveled to Africa- including Ghana, so we had a lot in common. Currently, he runs an office at Pitt to connect students with different organizations in the community as a way of incorporating service learning and civic responsibility in the experience of university students. When the New Year begins, he will spend 5 months as a Congressional fellow. Alec is a senior at the Naval Academy. He plays on the Academy’s football team and is involved in neuroscience research with Johns Hopkins University. At the cocktail party the following evening, I met the other eleven candidates for the scholarship, all of whom were amazing, intelligent, and humble people. There were four women (myself included) and the rest were men. With the exception of Alec, who was proposing to study Biomedical Engineering at Oxford, all of us were hoping to pursue social science programs. Some that I remember were Psychology and Theology, Refugee and Population Studies, East Asian Studies, Government and Politics, Languages and Literature, and Public Policy. Schools that were represented include: University of Pittsburgh, Stanford, Harvard, Swarthmore, University of Virginia, Villanova University, New York University (the guy who represented NYU attended their campus in Dubai, which I thought was very interesting), University of Chicago, the Naval Academy, and Weslyan University. There were others, but I can’t remember them all. I also met the 6 judges who were all former Rhodes Scholars, from different walks of life. The District Secretary, who is one of the judges, but from my understanding doesn’t have a vote, was a professor of English at Haverford College, which is where the interviews were held. Then, there was a woman who is a researcher and developmental economist at the World Bank, with a specialty in African development. There was a gentleman who is a professor of finance and economics at the University of Maryland in College Park; another man did something with finance, markets and sustainability (it was very unclear to me what his job title was) in New York- what I do know for sure is that he did his thesis work at Oxford on social perspectives of gay marriage from 2002-2005. The third judge was, and I promise you I am not making this up, the former Director of National Security under the Obama Administration, Admiral Blair. The sixth judge was a recent graduate of geochemistry at Oxford. She is now doing a PhD at Princeton (I think that’s the right Ivy League) studying sea salt as a way of reconstructing the climate record over the past million years. I was so excited to be in a room with so many intelligent people with such fascinating backgrounds and interests. I have to admit though, I did walk out of the cocktail party feeling a little bit of intimidation and anxiety about the following day. It wasn’t because I felt I didn’t measure up to the other candidates or anything like that; in fact, I felt very in my element because everyone had their own interests and had exceled because they were passionate about what they did and sought opportunities to pursue whatever it was they were into. I was more intimidated by the judges: I mean seriously people, can anyone reading this honestly tell me that they wouldn’t be intimidated to be interviewed by not only 6 adults who are highly respected in their fields, but who are Rhodes Scholars and have obtained positions in agencies like the World Bank or held posts as the freaking Director of National Security of the entire country? I know people are just people, but let’s face it: accolades, accomplishments, titles, awards- however you want to call it- can be intimidating. I was also anxious because there is no way of knowing what kinds of questions they would ask me or on which topics. Literally, anything is fair game for the interview. So it’s a bit difficult to feel prepared going in to that type of atmosphere. I did take some small comfort, though, in knowing that the 11 other people around me were probably also feeling the same emotions.

The cocktail party was a lot more laid back and intimate than I anticipated. The party was held in the lobby of one of the buildings on campus. There were hors d’oeuvres and non-alcoholic drinks, which surprised me because one of the things that I read in articles of blogs from past finalists was how imperative it was to only have one drink and to sip it slowly (sorry to be blunt, but DUH. Rule #1 in any situation: don’t go to a formal social setting, especially where you are making your first impression, and get drunk.); then there are always the discussions fellowship advisors have about whether to drink or not. It’s all a blend of opinions based on what is and isn’t proper etiquette that can cause candidates extra, unnecessary anxiety in my opinion. So it was nice that there wasn’t alcohol there because it really made it a no-brainer. We all mingled and got to know each other, as well as the judges better, then Laura, the District Secretary, made an announcement about what to expect with the interview and selection process the following day. Everyone would pick an interview time slot at the end of the evening for the following day. Interviews would begin at 8:00 AM, last about twenty minutes, and end around 1:20 PM. There was a potential for people to be called back for a second interview if the judges felt they needed clarification on something from the initial interview, if they felt they focused on one topic too long and didn’t get to ask a candidate about anything else, or if they were trying to decide between candidates. Really, the judges could call someone back for a second interview at their discretion and just because one was or wasn’t called back for a second interview didn’t mean that they were or weren’t selected to receive the scholarship. So when the cocktail party came to a close, we all drew times and for those of us staying at the Radnor, went back and grabbed some food.

My interview was slated for 10:05 AM, which I was really happy about. While I was still in Ghana trying to prepare for my interview, one of my advisors had sent me a horde of, well maybe a horde is a bit dramatic, but she sent me a lot of articles written by past candidates on their experiences. Some of them contained horror stories about how important the time of the interview is and how much it impacts the final decision: too early and the judges will forget you, too far into the process, they will have already made up their minds or be too exhausted to be able to fully consider you. I don’t know if any of this holds any truth- my guess is that it’s a load of shit (sorry to not be more politically correct) that comes from people being nervous or making excuses for a bad interview- but in any case it was definitely in the back of my mind and I felt relieved to have such a perfect time.

When I got to the building on campus where the interviews were being held, there was a room where we could all wait until our interviews. I’m glad I didn’t get there much more than 30 minutes early because you could just tell people who were waiting for their interviews were nervous and some who were still there and had already had their interviews were going through what they did wrong or could have done better. Not the best vibe to keep the nerves down, so I called Courtney to catch up with her, and I was really happy that my dad and Brent, who drove all the way up to Philly to support me, made it there before my interview, so I got to spend a little bit of time with them beforehand.

Walking in to the interview, I wasn’t really nervous, well at least I wasn’t anywhere near as nervous as I thought I was going to be. I felt quite calm and collected. I think by that point I knew I was as prepared as I could be. Getting to meet the judges the night before, while it was a little intimidating, also put me at ease because I wasn’t walking into a room of complete strangers. So on to the how the interview went. Let me preface this by saying there really is no way to prepare for a Rhodes interview; the best advice I received prior to my interview turned out to be right on point: the interview is not a question and answer session; it is not a test to see how much you know or don’t know about the world or your proposed area of study; rather, it is a chance for the committee to see how you think, how you arrive at a solution when a difficult question that will test not only your knowledge, but your ethics, is posed, and how you react when you have absolutely no idea about a topic you are asked. This much was made apparent with the first question I was asked by the developmental economist from the World Bank: “You are in a position where you are in charge of managing water resources of a country. Resources are scarce and you have to decide who gets water and who doesn’t. What do you do and how do you do it?” I wish I could watch a video tape of my interview because I know that I fumbled my way through that answer. I mean, at the age of 22, coming from a position where even when I have lived in Africa, I have always had the privilege of having access to potable water, how could I possibly have a good answer to that? Granted, I have had a glimpse of coping mechanisms in times of scarcity at the community level, but I truly believe that no matter how many years I work in places like Ghana, no matter the level of education I attain, no matter how much overall experience I have, I will never understand what it is like to live in conditions of scarcity and how to make difficult decisions about how best to allocate scarce resources until I actually live in those conditions. To illustrate my point: I am reading currently reading, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, by Brian Fagan. He opens the book with a personal anecdote about trekking through the Kalahari Desert with three San hunters on a hot morning at the end of the dry season. As he succumbs to the heat, taking regular pauses from their expedition to take swigs from his water bottle, he is amazed at the seeming lack of thirst or fatigue of his fellow hunters. Unbothered by the searing sun, they continue on, without faltering, further into the desert. When they come to a dry watercourse and a group of trees “that cast the only shade for miles around in the seemingly waterless landscape,” one of the hunters thrusts his wooding digging stick into the soil, his efforts producing a puddle of potable water. Drinking from this miraculous oasis, discovered only because the San hunter had a knowledge of his environment and how to survive in such extremes, passed from generation to generation, Fagan writes that he has, “never felt such a close, sensuous connection with the most vital elixir of life.” This moment was a defining one for him that not only led him to realize the significance of water, but led to his interest in human relationships with water throughout time. It is this type of situation experienced by Fagan and his subsequent revelation, to which I refer when I state my conviction that unless or until I have such an experience- and it doesn’t even have to be in Africa; there are circumstances such as those encountered by Fagan, all over the world, including the United States-that I can be able to have an idea of how to answer such a question intelligently.

 From there, questions involved the same theme, of winners and losers, but on the topic of climate change. Then, the Admiral changed the subject from managing scarce resources and climate change to education and my impressions of the education system in the United States. This then led to the question: “So you have to figure out a way to teach climate change in schools. What are four components of the educational plan you would devise to teach the subject?” I got to the second pillar of my plan: teaching both sides of the climate change argument, before I was then asked a set of rapid questions that included, “What do you mean both sides of the debate?” “Are you implying climate change isn’t real or that people don’t believe it’s happening?” “Should both arguments be taught with equal weight?” “What science exists to refute climate change?” After that discussion, the questions went back to the role that water plays in markets and vice versa, before ending with a question about whether we should institute a population policy as a way of effectively managing our water resources (the only question, might I add, that I was actually pleased with my answer). The very last question I was asked was this, “Did you have any questions that you were expecting or hoping the committee to ask you?” My mind just blanked. What I should have said was, “I would like you to ask me why I want to go to Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship.” Here’s what I actually said, “Um, what I do with my free time?” (and, unfortunately, the inflection is no mistake in that sentence;) I later kicked myself a little for that one and hoped they would call me back for a second interview, but hey, as they say, “hindsight is always 20/20,” and in all honesty, I believe everything happens for a reason so the Rhodes just wasn’t meant to happen for me right now. After the last candidate had her interview, we had a break until 2:30PM (roughly an hour), at which time we would have to reconvene so the judges could come and call back anyone for a second interview, if they selected anyone at all. So by 2:15, everyone was back in the holding room, anxiously awaiting in expectation for the District Secretary to walk into the room to announce candidates for second interviews. When 2:45 came around and there was no sight of the judges, we decided to watch Pirates of the Caribbean to keep us occupied and try to keep us from being nervous. Yeah, that didn’t work. Three o’clock came and went; 3:15, 3:20, 3:25. At the cost of sounding dramatic, minutes really did feel like hours in that room. It was awful. Then, at 3:30, they called one of the candidates for a second interview, which lasted all of 5 minutes. Ten minutes later we were all called into a room and they announced the winners: a guy from NYU who will study Refugee and Migration Studies and a guy from UVA (who was called for the second interview) who will study either Government and Politics or Public Policy (I can’t remember exactly). In any case, I was very happy for them both. Though the end result wasn’t what I was hoping for, it was an amazing experience and I am happy that I had it. I met a lot of great people and got so much out of the interview process. The first question posed, which essentially boiled down to: “How can we/do we effectively manage scarce resources in a way that is both efficient and ensures equitable distribution and access?” is one that has led me to completely reframe and rethink the way I approach my interest in water security. As naïve as it seems, and indeed I think is, I had never thought of it in this way. So I am very grateful to have been challenged in the way I think and approach my work. I am looking forward to exploring this further through my research here in Ghana over the next 7ish months.

After the intensive week of traveling and preparing for the interview and going through the interview process, I was absolutely exhausted and took full advantage of my last week at home to veg out and relax, spend time with my family and friends, and have a second Thanksgiving of course. Time flew by and before I knew it, Friday had come and I was on a plane bound first for New York, then to Ghana.

Well, for sake of the length of this post, I’ll sign off here. Be expecting another blog post detailing my first week back in Accra and the official beginnings of my research!
Until then,


No comments:

Post a Comment