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Yes, Virginia, studying literature can win you a Rhodes scholarship

View over the historic University of Oxford in England. The Rhodes Scholarship, which was founded through a bequest in the will of businessman and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes 112 years ago, pays for two years of graduate school and living costs at Oxford University.

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To win a Rhodes Scholarship, perhaps the world's most prestigious academic award, a student must demonstrate an unusual array of talents, excelling not only academically, but in extracurriculars, arts and "moral force of character."

Generations of applicants have wondered about the perfect mix of activities that fulfill those requirements, but as the resumes of three of this year's 11 Canadian winners reveal, the humanities will help get you some of the way there.

Colin Walmsley, 22, from Fort Macleod, Alberta, is a radio DJ at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., where he studies government and anthropology. Brittany Graham, 21, is working on a bachelor's degree in microbiology, immunology and creative writing at Dalhousie University and Benjamin Mappin-Kasirer earned a B.A. in French literature from Yale before enrolling in medicine at McGill. All three show a creative and unusual mix of interests.

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Mr. Mappin-Kasirer says that it was the humanities that sparked his interest in medicine.

"Literature is one of the things that first drew me to medicine. … In my experience, literature provides a platform to think about some of medicine's most difficult questions, such as the right ethical posture  of physicians, end-of-life care and the use of scarce resources in medical care," he said in an e-mail.

Ms. Graham's interest in the sciences also came many years after she first started writing in elementary school.

"Literature deepens my understanding of the differences between how I experience the world and how others experience it," she said.

Founded through a bequest in the will of businessman and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes 112 years ago, the scholarships pays for two years of graduate school and living costs at Oxford University. The alumni list famously counts politicians – Bill Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Ontario premier Bob Rae – Nobel prize winners and CIA directors. But it also includes humanists like New Yorker writer Atul Gawande and Richard Flanagan, this year's Booker prize winner, as well as Canadian journalist and MP Chrystia Freeland.

Rhodes scholars have always been connected to critical human issues, said Andrew Wilkinson, the Canadian secretary for the Rhodes and, since 2013, the B.C. Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services. Over the years, the personal statements students submit have focused on development issues, water security, climate change and public health in the developing world.

"It's a real barometer of what's going on in universities and what's on the minds of young people," Mr. Wilkinson said.

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This year, the scholarship is also returning to solid footing after launching a fundraising campaign to bolster its endowment, hit by the financial crisis. Internationally, it is two-thirds of the way to the £150-million goal set when it began raising money three years ago.

In 2013, the endowment received a $120-million injection from Canadian John McCall MacBain, the founder of Trader Classified Media, publisher of Auto Trader. That money was partly earmarked for expansion of the scholarship to students from Russia, China and Brazil and discussions are continuing about when those may start and how to design guidelines for selection.

No matter how impressive the winners' accomplishments or how prestigious the pedigree, Mr. Walmsley says in music he's found one of his passions.

"When I'm alone in the room with only my music and my microphone, I can forget about classes and sports and just focus on the songs and artists on the playlist.… being a DJ is one of the ways I make sure I don't neglect that passion."

The other winners of the Rhodes Scholarship this year are: Moustafa Abdalla, University of Toronto; Alexa Rachel Yakubovich, University of Manitoba; Bogdan Knezevic, University of Calgary: Logan Graham, University of British Columbia; Caroline Leps, University of Toronto; Joanna Klimczak, McGill University; Bernard Soubry, Mount Allison University; Devin Grant, Memorial University.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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