You are here

A Rhodes for A&S Triple Major

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When Byron Gray was a UW freshman, one of his professors encouraged the class to consider competing for prestigious national scholarships. The professor wanted her students to know that they were as qualified as Ivy Leaguers for such awards. 

The message stuck. His final year at the UW, Gray applied for, and won, a Rhodes Scholarship. 

“I didn’t expect to get it,” admits Gray, who will graduate in June with a triple degree in political science, Asian studies, and law, societies and justice (LSJ). “I thought I screwed up the Rhodes interview. It was just shocking more than anything.” 

Rhodes Scholar Byron Gray.

Rhodes Scholar Byron Gray. Media credit: Joan Palmiter Bajorek

Gray’s undergraduate career has been full of such surprises. He came with no knowledge or particular interest in India but now specializes in Indian politics. He started his freshmen year convinced that he was headed for law school but now plans for a career in academia.

“When I started at the UW, I was absolutely certain that I would go to law school. I felt that there was not a liberal arts professor in the world who would convince me otherwise,” Gray recalls with a laugh. “But I quickly discovered that a lot of the questions I’m interested in I wouldn’t be able to pursue as a lawyer. That’s when I became interested in academia.”

Intrigued by a freshman course on social movements in India, Gray followed it with a 400-level seminar on Indian politics. “I really enjoyed trying to situate abstract political science studies in an actual place,” he explains. “India was a great place to do that. It’s such a diverse area. It just really drew me in.”

As he took more India-related courses, including Hindi language classes, he realized he might want to do graduate work in the field. One problem: he’d never been to India. “I figured I better go there to see if I really liked it,” he says. 

Having never traveled abroad, Gray decided to first participate in an LSJ program in Rome, focused on European Union law and Italian legal culture. Then came a Hindi language program in India, followed by a quarter-long program on environment and development in the Himalayas, offered through UW’s South Asian Studies program. “We were in northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas,” says Gray. “We spent half our time in the classroom, and half working with an NGO involved in environment, development, and gender. I finally got to see all the things I’d read about in the abstract.” 

Byron Gray poses with members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Jaipur,  Rajasthan, India. To his right is the president of the BJP in Rajasthan.

Byron Gray poses with members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Jaipur, 
Rajasthan, India. To his right is the president of the BJP in Rajasthan.

A year later Gray returned to India for another language course, this one in Urdu. He explains that while Urdu is known as the language of Pakistan, it is also spoken in India. It shares grammar with Hindi but the vocabulary and script are different. “The legacy of separation between the two languages is very political,” he says. “It makes you think about the use of language in politics.” 

Back on campus, Gray worked closely with faculty on several independent study projects. After taking an LSJ course on international human rights, for example, he continued to explore the subject through an independent study on human rights in India in relation to international human rights. He’s been impressed with A&S faculty’s willingness to spend time with students on such work, mentioning LSJ professor Jonathan Wender and international studies professor Sunila Kale as prime examples. 

Kale, who studies the political science of South Asia, is adviser on Gray’s honors thesis and has been a mentor for most of Gray’s UW career. “I started working with her at the end of my second year,” says Gray. “Any project I’ve done has, at some point, run back through her. She’s just been really good in terms of pushing me to do more without controlling what I do.”

Thanks to his Rhodes Scholarship, Gray will continue his academic pursuits in England after graduating from the UW in June. The scholarship covers two years at Oxford University—”a particularly good place for study of South Asia,” says Gray—with the potential for a third year. Looking ahead, he hopes for a career in academia that will combine his interests in Indian politics, justice, and law.

“I really love research,” Gray says. “Just the ability to understand and explore the world is something that appeals to me on a personal level. But I also believe that academics can be instruments for social change. The key is figuring out how to do that effectively.”

Joining Gray as a 2012 Rhodes Scholar is Cameron Turtle, a UW bioengineering major and co-founder of Bioengineers without Borders at the UW. Turtle, who also has received Mary Gates and Goldwater scholarships, is not an Arts and Sciences student but has worked in the research laboratory of chemistry professor Sarah Keller, associate dean for research activities in the College of Arts and Sciences.