For the first time in the Rhodes Scholarship program’s 117-year history, a University of Connecticut student has earned the honors. Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru earned the nod last week alongside 31 other students across the nation.
“I don’t know if I have the words yet. It’s obviously such a great honor and the opportunity to be UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar presents so many future opportunities to represent the communities I hold close to myself,” Gatheru said. “Obviously, I am a proud Husky. UConn has completely transformed me and been one of the most influential periods of my life. I will always be a Husky and I get to represent UConn forever now in this very special way. I also get to represent the state of Connecticut, our flagship university, being able to represent us in that way.”
Gatheru, the first daughter of Kenyan immigrants, also earned the Truman and Udall fellowships this year and is the first black person to earn those as well as the Rhodes scholarship.
“I also get to represent first generation Americans everywhere,” Gatheru said. “My family comes from Kenya and being able to really exemplify the goodness that our immigrants bring to this country and those ideals that were cast down to me, having two parents that were Kenyan immigrants, I am able to represent that and it is something that I am so thankful to be able to do.”
The Rhodes Scholarship program, established in 1902, guarantees its scholars a free graduate degree education from University of Oxford in Oxford, England. Scholars are typically there for two years and have up to four years and $250,000 in scholarships available to them.
Just when I think I’ve run out of tears, they just. keep. coming. I am a 2020 Rhodes Scholar. The 1st in UConn’s history and (by the looks of archives) the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall. This is unreal. Mom and Dad – I did it!! https://t.co/nWtAD4I6t4
— Wanjiku Gatheru (@wawagatheru) November 25, 2019
Gatheru, a seventh semester student majoring in environmental studies with minors in global studies and urban and community studies, will pursue a graduate degree in nature, society and environmental governance in her first year and is planning to earn another in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation in her second. However, she said she may spend her second year doing research instead.
After the announcement, Gatheru sent out a tweet acknowledging it and went to bed, thinking nothing of it. When she woke up, it was at 20,000 likes, then 50,000 the next day and it now sits at more than 85,000.
Among the two thousand replies to the viral tweet are congratulatory words from New Jersey Senator and Democratic presidential primary candidate Cory Booker, Erica Lira Castro, a teacher from San Antonio and wife of Democratic primary candidate Julian Castro, a slew of Connecticut’s elected officials and Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Having [Booker] specifically message me and say that, it touched me so much,” Gatheru said. “As someone who does eventually want to run for office, having someone like him recognize and say that I inspire, that’s crazy to me.”
The scholarship was set up and funded by Cecil Rhodes and his estate. Rhodes was a known imperialist, white supremacist and colonialist who made a fortune in the South African mining industry. He then served as the Prime Minister to the Cape Colony before committing the money to fund the scholarship in his will.
“Many of his directly racist statements, ideologies and practices, especially with South Africans were towards black Africans,” Gatheru said. “Being a black African and being able to have the opportunity to be everything that he would have not thought of, I take so much pride in that because I see that as actively transforming a legacy to help black and brown people.”
She also mentioned how she wants to empower black and brown people in her intended field of environmental studies, a space where they haven’t always had the same opportunities as white people.
Gatheru, who grew up in a family of nurses and medical professionals, intends to pursue a career in public service. She committed herself to seven years of public service by accepting the Truman fellowship in April.
“I do want to take a very direct role in regard to environmental policy, I see myself doing that immediately while I’m at Oxford and afterward, but I do want to run for office and be one of our U.S. Senators,” Gatheru said.
After finishing her time at Oxford, Gatheru said she plans to go to law school in the United States as well. Once she is done with school, she plans to run for office at some point in her life, with an eye on a Senate seat.
“I have never conceptualized a future that wasn’t in public service, that was I all considered,” Gatheru said.