"If you ask for an athlete's reaction after winning a race, he'll be happy, but he won't be surprised," said Willy Oppenheim III '09. "It's not a random thing that happens to you. You make it happen."
Oppenheim was one of 32 Americans awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, chosen this year from a group of 805 U.S. applicants.
Cecil J. Rhodes, a British ex-patriot and South African empire-builder, established the Rhodes Scholarships in 1903 for English-speaking students all around the world to attend Oxford University.
Oppenheim is one of only 22 Bowdoin alumni to become a Rhodes scholar. The last Bowdoin student to receive the scholarship was Frances L. Kellner '82.
"Just meeting Willy, I got a sense that he had a lot to offer the world on many different levels," said Student Fellowships and Research Director Cindy Stocks.
The highly prestigious scholarships provide $50,000 toward three years at Oxford University.
According to Stocks, "Rhodes scholars are leaders—they see a problem, see a need, bring people around to address the issue, and solve the issue."
Oppenheim credits Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster for first encouraging him to apply for the scholarship. Subsequently, many others urged him to do the same.
Initially, Oppenheim was uninterested in pursuing higher education upon graduation.
"I wasn't in any rush to go back to school," he said. "It was never something that I had wanted to do."
However, Oppenheim came to two crucial realizations that motivated him to apply for the scholarship.
"I found a program at Oxford that I actually wanted to do. Scholarship or not, I realized the program [comparative and international education] was exactly what I wanted," said Oppenheim.
Additionally, he said he developed a more "pragmatic and hardheaded" perspective, prompting him to consider the range of connections and advantages that would come with a degree from Oxford.
Oppenheim is the creator of the Omprakash Foundation. Omprakash serves as a resource for grassroots organizations to reach a broader audience. Its Web site allows for anyone to "play an active role in processes of social change."
"Someone told me, 'Whatever you want to do with Omprakash and your life in general, you'll be able to do better if you get a Rhodes,'" Oppenheim said.
Stocks worked alongside Oppenheim during the application process. She had mentioned the option of applying for the scholarship and stayed in touch with him during the end of his junior year and senior year.
"We set up many mock interviews involving panels of faculty who reviewed his application, so that he would be able to get a little practice and feel comfortable," Stocks said.
To be considered for the Rhodes scholarship, students apply within their college or university, and the faculty and staff on the Student Fellowships and Research Committee decide on the candidates they choose to endorse.
"Willy was the only one we chose to endorse," Stocks said.
"When they were reading off the names, the strategy in my head was not to be disappointed either way," Oppenheim said. "Instead, I thought about what I would want to be doing if I didn't get the Rhodes scholarship."
Even if Oppenheim had not won the scholarship, he said he knew he had other options, including working in Patagonia through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) during the winter of 2010. Oppenheim had been eager to explore South America, and would have been elated with either direction his life could have taken.
"It breaks my heart that I can't work in Patagonia," said Oppenheim. "That's the attitude I had going into the whole thing."
Stocks said, "He went into the process with the right attitude. He was going to give it his best shot and learn a lot in the process and I think that attitude helped him to really be himself. It worked out pretty well."
Stocks did not describe Oppenheim as an anomaly, but certainly as an extraordinary person.
"In an environment like Bowdoin there are many opportunities for students to engage in whatever they are passionate about," said Stocks.
She encourages students to pursue their interests, and not solely for the purpose of winning a scholarship to Oxford University, though it certainly may be an incentive.
"Students have to figure out what they're passionate about and then invest themselves in whatever that may be. If they do that, good things will happen. It may not lead to a Rhodes, but it will certainly lead to a success. It will bring them happiness and will reflect well on the school," Stocks said.
Stocks added, "Just having an outstanding GPA is not enough to be a Rhodes scholar. They are looking to invest in people who are of service to the world. That really fits with who Willy is."
"You can't fake your interest," Oppenheim said. "It's not about the scholarship, but about doing what you love."