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Northwestern University

Two Roads to the Rhodes

Want to be a Rhodes Scholar? From the following sketches of our 2009 winners, perhaps one should consider running cross country in high school, becoming fluent in Spanish, and triple-majoring at Weinberg College.

Anya’s path from Elektrostal

When the Rhodes scholarship committee asked candidate Anya Yermakova to define beauty—as it applies to philosophy, biology, mathematics, and music—she didn’t hesitate to answer. At Northwestern, Anya crosses boundaries of knowledge on a regular basis and thinks deeply about how these fields connect.

Her story begins with a boundary-crossing of a different sort. Her happy early childhood, in what was then the Soviet Union, was filled with family, friends, Russian folk dancing, and piano. Then, in 1997, her family left Elektrostal, a small industrial city about 40 miles east of Moscow, for Chicago and better economic opportunities. Her parents had been electrical engineers but came here jobless and speaking less than perfect English.

Anya was in sixth grade that year and she grew up fast. “I was the one who called about phone bills and gas bills—what 11-year-old does that?” she asks. “I picked up the language much quicker because I was at school.”

Everything was big, she remembers—houses, cars, portions of food. She transferred schools almost every year, as her parents sought increasingly better school districts for her. “They considered education such a high priority. They were willing to get a small, dirty apartment so I could go to a better school.” Her parents retrained themselves—her mother in accounting and her father in computer science.

Anya thrived in high school in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, excelling at music, languages, science, even badminton. But her involvement in another sport says more about her character: “I was really bad at cross country. I knew I was probably going to fail in every race. But in some weird way, I enjoyed keeping myself in check.” And so she stayed on the team and kept on running.

When it came to selecting a college, Northwestern had what she was looking for: a five-year dual degree program in music and science. Being close to her parents, now in suburban Buffalo Grove, was a bonus.

“Coming to Northwestern was a great decision,” she says. “I have loved it and gotten a lot out of it.” Anya—a triple major in biochemistry, piano, and the history and philosophy of science and logic—could be a poster child for taking advantage of Northwestern opportunities.

She has been able to dive deeply into her passions and discover new ones along the way. She has indulged her love of music and dancing—performing, composing, choreographing—all enriched with a strong academic foundation. A class with Drew Davies, assistant professor of music studies, on the music of gypsies led to a fascination with flamenco and an undergraduate research grant for travel to Spain. Intrigued with the process of improvisation which lies at the heart of the music, she gave a talk at the musicology colloquium about it and wrote an article on flamenco for the Chicago Journal of Musicians. She is also choreographing flamenco pieces for BLAST, the ballroom, Latin and swing group on campus.

Fluent in Spanish, she finds time to work as an interpreter at a health clinic in Chicago, which serves those without health insurance.

On the science side, she has done research in chemical engineering and nanotechnology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering. But towards the end of her fourth year, she took Kenneth Seeskin’s class on ancient Greek philosophy and that has changed everything. “The more I learned about philosophy from Professor Seeskin, the more I started seeing how the philosophy of mathematics is so relevant to work in the sciences. I don’t know if I know more about biochemistry or philosophy at this point. But having the fifth year here was really important—I don’t think I would have formulated all these thoughts in April of last year.”

At Oxford, she hopes to connect her myriad interests. Her program, a doctorate in systems biology, is very open-ended, she says. The field spans from mathematicians collaborating with experimentalists and applying graph theory to economists working on social systems in the same way others work on biological systems. “It’s a field that’s at the frontier of new knowledge,” she says with excitement. “There needs to be some way for biological systems to be more quantified.”

If the past is indeed prologue, Anya should be on the team that figures it out.

Mallory’s Inter-State Journey

The Rhodes scholarship committee—ten or eleven people—gathered at one big table, board of directors-style, and Mallory Dwinal sat at its head. During the selection process, they fired questions at her for two hours. One question surprised her: Who has a better public education system, China or the U.S.?

Mallory, whose interest is in comparative international education, hadn’t expected a question so specifically comparing two countries. “It totally caught me off guard. I had been to China, but to study economics and language. So I had to quickly get my bearings to remember what I had gleaned in reading.”

Her broad knowledge and grace under pressure paid off. After a three-hour wait, during which the 16 candidates worked on a puzzle, played computer games and watched TV online, Mallory’s name was announced as one of two Rhodes scholarship winners from her Seattle district.

“After being there for 11 hours, it didn’t really sink in that I had won until I got home that night,” she says.

Like Anya Yermakova, “home” was many different places to Mallory during her childhood. As her father, a “turnaround specialist,” helped rebuild companies facing bankruptcy, the family moved from Iowa to Illinois, Nebraska, and finally, to the state of Washington, where she and her family stayed. She traces her fascination with education to all the moves: “I could see at a very young age how different schools could be and how much they mattered to a kid’s life.”

And like Anya, her childhood included difficult challenges—not language and cultural barriers, but natural disasters. “In Iowa, we lived on the Mississippi and lost everything in the floods of 1990, twice! When I was a freshman in high school, our house burned down.”

She describes herself as a high-energy and stubborn child. “When my family moved to Nebraska, I decided I didn’t want to go. So in the 13 months we lived there, I refused to make friends. When people invited me over, I’d just sit at home in protest.” She was 8 or 9 at the time. By high school, she had learned how to channel her stubborn and independent streak into productive outlets. She was actively involved in the debate team and in sports—track, cross country, soccer, and swimming.

At her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Chicago, she was encouraged to visit Northwestern and, she says, fell in love with the campus, the tour guides, and everything the University offered. A strong speech and debate team was a huge draw for her, as was the “fluidity between departments” at Weinberg College.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into medicine or business or law,” she says. “So having the freedom to figure it out and the flexibility to change in and out of departments and majors was a huge benefit.”

Mallory is also a triple major—in Spanish, economics, and international studies—who finds time to volunteer in her community. A summer program in China, a conversation with women who worked at Northwestern, and an economics class were all catalysts for what became Mallory’s greatest accomplishment at Northwestern: starting the ESL tutoring program, SELF.

“While in China, I didn’t speak Chinese very well, so I got a little taste of how isolating that feels. When I got back to campus two women—one works in the dining hall and one in maintenance—told me what a hard time their kids were having in school. They were native Spanish speakers and couldn’t understand what was going on in class. At the same time, for our final in our social enterprise class, we had to create, on paper, an organization which would serve the community. I put together a program which would connect Northwestern tutors with non-English speaking students in Chicago public elementary schools.”

When the class voted on the projects’ real-world potential, Mallory’s won and the hard work began. With guidance from Associate Dean Mary Finn she mapped out a plan. With a $500 grant from the Posner Fund, she purchased all books and supplies. And with a huge outpouring of support from fellow students, she recruited over 100 Northwestern volunteers, so many that she had to find a second Chicago public school to partner with.

“I have loved volunteering in these schools and seeing all of the issues that exist in urban schools,” she says. This propels her interest in a career in educational policy. At Oxford, she will work on a master’s/doctoral program in comparative international education. Then she will attend Harvard business school, focusing on its public education leadership program.

“I’ll get my PhD in comparing different educational systems in the United Kingdom and globally. I’ll look at how successful these systems are in dealing with the ever-rising presence of immigrant groups who don’t speak the primary language and who aren’t adjusted to the primary culture.”

At Oxford, she hopes to have time to “hang out” with Anya as well. After all, the two have much in common.

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