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A Rhodes Scholar Reflects on her UW Education

In December 2001, A&S alumna Elizabeth Angell ‘01 was named a Rhodes Scholar—the second UW student to earn that prestigious honor in two years. Students selected for the scholarship spend two years at Oxford University. A&S Perspectives editor Nancy Joseph spoke with Angell in January about her years at the University and the Rhodes scholarship.

How does it feel to be named a Rhodes Scholar?

It’s been incredibly exciting. I’ve sent in my Oxford application and I still can’t believe they picked me. During the interview process, I got to meet the other candidates—we spent more than four hours sitting in a room together—and they were all incredible people. It was just an honor to be in that room with them, let alone to be picked for the scholarship. So I’m delighted and very excited about it.

At age 20, you probably were one of the younger Rhodes candidates in that room. You came to the UW through the Early Entrance Program (EEP) at age 15. What led you to participate in the program?

Elizabeth Angell

I was really bored in school. I didn’t fit into the atmosphere there very well. I found out about the Early Entrance Program and thought it would be worth a try. It turned out to be a very good decision. There were so many more interesting opportunities for me here than there would have been in a suburban high school environment.

How was that first year at the University?

I spent the year in the transition school, which meant I was on campus but I was mostly with other students in the Early Entrance Program. Four teachers gave us the basics of high school that year—a Western history course, pre-calculus, an English literature course—since most of us had just finished middle school or been home-schooled. Spring quarter I took one regular UW class, so I became more familiar with the campus environment.

How did you choose your two majors, history and international studies?

History has always been an interest of mine. Even in middle school, it was what I liked best. Looking in the course catalog, I kept circling things in the history section and thinking “I want to take that.” But I didn’t think it was practical. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into an academic career—although now I realize I do—and I was worried about what else I could do with a history degree.

After a memorable Honors Program course in genetic engineering, I considered a second major in biology. But when I started taking the science and math courses required for that degree, I realized it just wasn’t for me. Then I took an international studies class with Resat Kasaba, who later became my mentor, and loved every minute of it. That’s when I decided to double major in history and international studies.

I still worried about the practicality of the two degrees, but I just decided to do what I loved. And it was the best decision I ever made. My grades started going up and I was so much happier when I stopped trying to fit myself down a path that didn’t fit me.

When you head to Oxford in the fall, it won’t be your first visit to Britain. You studied at the University of Edinburgh through the UW Exchange Program. What were your reasons for studying abroad?

I’ve wanted to travel ever since I was a kid, but my family never traveled. My international experience consisted of a day trip to Victoria, B.C., and I’d only seen three states outside of Washington. This was my chance! It was an exchange program so I was still able to enroll as a UW financial aid student and pay UW tuition rather than expensive foreign tuition. Otherwise I don’t think I could have funded travel at that point.

Also, Scotland was a place I was particularly interested in visiting, since I’d already studied the area. I must admit, though, that I would have gone almost anywhere at that point.

Why had you chosen Scotland as a research focus?

I got interested in the traditional music of Scotland when I was quite young. After that, it kind of snowballed. At some point it stopped being about the music but more about the history and background of the place. People think they know about Scotland—they have an image in their heads of what it’s like—but the whole kilts and bagpipes and whiskey thing… a lot of that “tradition” was invented during the Victorian era, and some of it by the English.

The reality of Scotland is far more fascinating. It’s a country that had been independent but has operated in the framework of a larger political structure—the United Kingdom— for 300 years. And now there’s a nationalist movement there and they’ve gotten their own Parliament again. So it’s an interesting place to study.

Have you been involved in other research?

Yes. In fact, right now I’m a research assistant to Sutapa Basu, the director of the Women’s Center, working on the issue of the trafficking of women and children worldwide. I’ve done research, written speeches, and helped write up the proceedings of a conference we held on campus about this issue.

I’m also working for Mary Callahan in the Jackson School, mainly researching and helping edit a book about civil-military relations in democratic reform processes. It’s a cool project.

What’s been the most valuable aspect of participating in faculty research?

The research projects have often been outside the specific areas that I plan to study. It’s more the experience of working directly with really amazing people. Also, since I plan to pursue an academic career, it’s given me exposure to some of the things I’ll actually be doing someday. I’ve learned the tools of the trade.

You’re also helping out in a UW class this quarter?

Yes. I’m assisting in an Honors section of a large lecture course in the Jackson School [of International Studies]. I help students with their papers and help them study for exams. It’s great fun. The students are awesome. And this was my favorite class as an undergraduate, so it’s been fun to replay it three years later and see how much I’ve done since and how much it’s influenced my thinking.

After you received the Rhodes scholarship, you told the Seattle Times that “people in Washington don’t always understand they have a world-class university in their backyard.” What do you think makes the UW world class?

If you make the effort, and if you seek out the opportunities that exist here—which can be hard at a big university like this—you can get an education that’s every bit as good as what you get at an Ivy League university. The faculty are fantastic. The History Department has two MacArthur scholars and the Jackson School is full of stellar people, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with the most amazing professors.

The quality students get for their money is incredible. I’m hoping that won’t be threatened through budget cuts and higher tuition. Right now the UW gets just something like sixteen percent of its budget or less from state funding. It’s tiny. For a major state university, it’s so little. It worries me. I think it’s going to hurt UW programs. I want other people to have as good an experience as I did.

Did you realize that the UW was “world class” when you first arrived?

Not at all. I came to the UW for two reasons—the Early Entrance Program and the affordable in-state tuition. For the first two years, I thought it would have been nice to go to Harvard. Now I’m so glad I came to the UW. It’s been an amazing experience. Honestly, I can’t think of any place that could have been better for me.