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The U.S. Rhodes Scholars for 2021 were elected virtually this year for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, though that didn’t extinguish enthusiasm among the 32 students who won scholarships to Oxford University.

The Rhodes Trust announced the winners early Sunday, which include 22 students of colour. Ten are Black, which ties the record for the most Black students elected in a single year.

Shera Avi-Yonah, a 22-year-old Harvard University student, said she found out about her win Saturday night while she was sitting in her parent’s basement in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

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“A wave of gratitude washed over me,” Avi-Yonah said, adding that she ran upstairs to tell her parents. “I’m going to have a very happy Thanksgiving.”

The winners were chosen from a pool of more than 2,300 applicants – of which 953 were endorsed by 288 different colleges and universities to study at Oxford University in England.

Avi-Yonah is planning to study history at Oxford, comparing the libel laws of the U.S. and United Kingdom. She is a reporter at the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, and has been the subject of several lawsuits for various stories – prompting her interest in the limits of press freedom.

She’s hoping to become a journalist after she finishes her studies, and noted that it’s a unique time in the industry. “It’s a moment where journalism is both in crisis financially and there are outside attacks, but it’s also more vital than ever to our democracy.”

Sixteen committees from the Rhodes Trust invited the strongest applicants to interview virtually. The committees then made their selection of two students from each district.

The group of scholarship recipients includes a student from Southern Connecticut State University and a student from the University of California, Santa Cruz; the first time either university has been represented.

The winners include 17 women, 14 men and one nonbinary person.

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Scholarship-winners expressed incredulity at hearing they would be Rhodes Scholars, a distinction that has launched the careers of famous politicians, academics, scientists and journalists.

“I think I’m still in shock,” said Brian Reyes, 21, of the Bronx. “It’s nice to actually see my name on the Rhodes website and have it confirmed that it’s real.”

Reyes, a history major, is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He is a student counsellor who has been living on campus this school year and taking his classes online. He is planning on a two-year degree program in comparative social policy and a career in government or the non-profit sector.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Daniel Lesman of Dublin, a senior at Ohio State University.

Lesman was selected for founding a non-profit organization providing educational resources to homeless and at-risk students as well as for biomedical research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, and COVID-19.

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