4 Chinese students are Rhodes Scholars

Updated: 2015-12-15 11:28

By Hezi Jiang in New York(China Daily USA)

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 4 Chinese students are Rhodes Scholars

Zhang Chunying, one of the four Chinese mainland winners of the Rhodes Scholarships. She is studying for a master's in journalism at Columbia University. Provided to China Daily

For the first time ever, Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded to students from the Chinese mainland.

The four Chinese winners, who will begin their studies at Oxford in the fall of 2016, are: Ren Naying, a LGBT activist from Tsinghua University; Zhang Wanyu, a legal-aid volunteer focusing on factory workers who have suffered workplace injuries, with an emphasis on those afflicted by silicosis; Gong Chenzhuo, a world traveler who volunteered as teacher in rural China and the third world and currently works for the United Nations in Tanzania; and Zhang Chunying, an aspiring journalist who has interned with Reuters and the New York Times in Shanghai, exploring topics from labor disputes to corruption.

"'Thank you,' I kept saying 'Thank you.' I responded to everything he said with 'Thank you,'" Zhang Chunying, 23, described the phone call she got telling her about the award at 3:14 pm on Dec 6 in her home in Nanjing. "The whole time I was thinking about how I could record the call, but failed to do so."

Currently pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University, Zhang had flown back to China for the final round of interviews for award, which describes itself as "perhaps the most prestigious scholarship" in the world. Former US president Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar.

Sixteen finalists, chosen from hundreds of applicants, attended the last round of interviews in Shanghai, and Zhang remembered feeling that every competitor she met at the finalists' dinner banquet on Dec 4 was better than herself.

"Everyone deeply cares about society and many are very focused on a cause and everyone speaks great English," said Zhang, who thought her English would stand out, but it was not the case.

The nine-person selection committee included Charles Conn, global CEO of the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships; Li Yinuo, head of the China region at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; American writer and journalist James Fallows; Chinese angel investor Xu Xiaoping; and Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming.

During the dinner and the formal interview on the following day, the judges posed unexpected questions. Zhang was asked: What do you think of New York City? What will you tell the press if you win? What is human nature?

Applicants to the Rhodes Scholarship are judged on four criteria: literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one's talents to the fullest; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead and take an interest in one's fellow beings.

Zhang said she shared her stories with vivid detail and even got emotional at times during the interviews. She told China Daily that it might have been her "storytelling" and "truthfulness" that won her the place.

"Who got the scholarship is not the most important thing. A lot of it is probability and luck," said Zhang. "The most important thing is to show the world what Chinese young people care about and the social concerns we have."

"All four winners got our undergraduate degrees in China. I think most of the 16 finalists did," said Zhang. "It shows that our language skills and our thinking measure up to international standards."