Jaclyn Herr

I had never intended to apply for a fellowship—it was simply never on my radar. The summer after my junior year, I was contacted by the Fellowships Office’s Director, Tim Parshall, who suggested that I apply. One of my professors had given him my name as a potential applicant.

Applying to be a Rhodes or Marshall scholar had never occurred to me because I couldn’t see myself in that role—I was a strong student, an active member of the community and a leader but something that prestigious never seemed like an option for me. As a first generation college student, my family did not expect me to go to college and they definitely didn’t expect me to thrive like I have. While I always knew I wanted to get a college degree, I never dreamed of being something like a Rhodes scholar. Describing what a Rhodes scholar was to me or my family was like trying to explain a billion dollars—it is simply too big to understand in comparison to the lifestyle we have always known. If I had not been told that I owed it to myself to apply, I would not have considered it. Once I was told I had a shot, though, I really poured myself into the process. It was really exhilarating and, at times, exhausting, but I’m glad I did it.

As a Classicist, the UK seemed an ideal place to study. The UK houses a wide variety of excellent resources from wonderful libraries to extensive museum collections, all of which would be relevant to my studies in Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history and culture. England, where I intended to study through the Marshall program, has an immense history of it’s own. I’ve always thought studying Classics in a country as young as the United States made some concepts difficult to understand or relate to, so I wanted to go somewhere with a rich and long-standing history. Oxford University itself is nearly a thousand years old. I mean, how incredible is that? 

Since I began my applications very late in the game, the essays were very taxing. I went through revision after revision, and spent many nights trying to put into words why I deserved to go to England.

The difficult part of the essays, for me, was not so much the writing itself (as an English major, I had a good handle on that) but coming to terms with the idea that I was actually qualified to be a Marshall or Rhodes scholar and had to articulate that. When you go into an application thinking you don’t really stand a chance, you have to convince yourself that you do, and then convince others. Convincing the Rhodes and Marshall committees that you deserve to be among their ranks in only a thousand words or so is an intimidating task—especially when you really have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

The application process is a great opportunity, in general. Being forced to articulate who you are, what you want to do, why you want to do it, and why anyone else should care is a rewarding endeavor, and not one that people are asked to do very often. Writing my personal statements over and over again really helped me understand why I love Classics and what I want to do.

When I got the email that I was a Rhodes finalist and would have an interview, I cried. College can with many obstacles for me—I jumped into Mizzou pretty blind, and my family couldn’t offer me much advice on how to manage since they had not been to college. My family was also not able to financially support me. By senior year, I was working two jobs, was president of two organizations and sat on two department committees. I had lost loved ones, battled cancer, and changed drastically over the first three years of my college career—and that moment validated all of it for me.

The interview process itself is also very rewarding—even if it’s also hugely intimidating and stressful. I met some amazing scholars (both the other applicants and the judges) and have stayed in contact with a few of them. One of the judges, a planetary scientist at Harvard, has even kept in contact with me, and I hope to reconnect with her when I move to Boston for graduate school. 

Once I received word that I would have an interview for Rhodes, I contacted Dr. Ted Tarkow (the official advisor for Rhodes at MU) and we immediately started planning a mock interview. The mock interview was nice and very helpful. The thing I struggled with most was taking too long to answer questions and being rambly, so the mock interview was a nice opportunity to try and work on being more concise.

The interview in St. Louis was scary, but really enjoyable. It’s a two-day affair—there in a banquet/reception one night, and interviews begin the next morning around 8am. At the banquet, you are basically just mingling for two hours and trying to impress the judges while also being yourself. The only people present are the applicants (there are usually about 10-12) and the judges (there were 6 at mine). One applicant and I kind of joined forces and went around the room talking to people as much as we could, and tried to talk to everyone before the event ended. I talked about everything from my trip to Greece and my studies to why no one ate the hors d'œuvre at these banquets (they had a shrimp platter and these little sausage dumplings—who is going to eat that and ruin their breath in a situation like this?!)

We were told at the banquet when we would be interviewed, but most of us went to the interview location together in groups (partially to cut down on the shuttle rides from the hotel, but also because the comradery was comforting). I think my interview was scheduled for 10:45am but was late—they schedule interviews for about 20 minutes, and quickly fall behind because most Rhodes applicants are fun people to talk to! I got pretty nervous just sitting around and waiting with the other applicants. When the person who was scheduled in front of me went in for her interview, I stepped outside for about ten minutes and listened to my favorite song and got some fresh air. When I came inside and got back settled in, they were ready for me.

The questions were typically fun to answer, and were mostly things I hadn’t predicted. There were some “Why Classics?” sorts of questions, but also some about my background as a first generation college student, my cancer, my family, my favorite books (within and outside of Classics) and all sorts of things.

After the interviews are done, the judges talk for a while. In the case of my interview, they decided to do second interviews with about half of us. These interviews only lasted about 5 minutes. I was asked whether I thought Mark Twain was a realist or a romanticist, and I was asked the hardest question I’ve been asked in probably my entire life: whether or not I am abandoning my roots, my family and my peers by going off to graduate school to enter a life of academia. The interviewer who asked me this had also been a first generation college student, and he had stayed close to his family and hometown to help other people with his sort of background—I had not yet considered such a path for myself. I’m still trying to answer his question and figure out how I can help other students like me be successful. If the interview does nothing else, it should raise questions that you probably aren’t ready for, but that you have to answer anyway.

When the interviews are completely done and the judges are done deliberating, they announce the two winners from that district. In my case, this happened around 5pm, and I had only left the building briefly (to get lunch and go for a walk with other applicants) since 9am that morning. I was exhausted, and I was not a winner. The judges called us into the foyer of the building, we stood in a circle, and they read the names of the two winners—and that was that! The rest of us picked up our things and went home while the two new Rhodes scholars finished up some paperwork. It was very emotional but still an experience I’m glad to have had.

Be genuine. Please, please, please be yourself—the scholarship has to be right for you and you have to be right for it, and if it’s not then it’s not. Anyone who is qualified to apply for these fellowships is a strong, incredible student and will do fine and be successful no matter what happens—so don’t try and change yourself to fit what the judges want. After the process was all over, one of the judges contacted me and told me that in her eight years doing Rhodes interviews, I was the most genuine applicant she’d ever met—knowing that made me know that I had done all I could, and that 2013 simply wasn’t my year. I’m happy with that. 


See Jaclyn's featured interview in Mizzou Magaine: It's All Greek, story by Kelsey Allen.

See Jaclyn's previous interview featured on the Fellowships Office website: Mizzou Student Jaclyn Herr Inspires Others as Rhodes Finalist, story by Melissa Coon.

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