On winning and…not

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Paul Sonne, Editor in Chief of CPR and Rhodes finalist, almost ended Columbia’s six year losing streak on the Rhodes scholarship this year, (even NYU and Duke scored awards—as if basketball and US News rankings weren’t enough). Luckily, he had already landed the Marshall and its free ride to Oxford, where he’ll be getting a Master of Philosophy in Russian and Eastern European studies. Bwog interrupted his celebrations to ask him how the whole thing works.

paulWhat did you first do when you heard about the Marshall?

I kind of flipped out, and called my parents. They were obviously thrilled, not only because I won, but because they won’t have to pay for me for the next two years.

What were the application processes like?

They’re really, really intense. There’s just a lot of recommendations, a lot of thinking and reflecting about yourself. We’re at a point in our lives where I think very few of us know what we’re going to do, and to be able to sell yourself as going to be x or going to be y is very tough. But it was actually really not as painful as I thought it was going to be.

What was it like competing with some of the top students in the country?

Everyone was so fascinating, and I felt like to have gotten this far, no one was faking it, it wasn’t like people had been spending their entire lives to win these awards. These are kids who are really dedicated to what they were doing, and whether or not they ended up winning the award, they were going to be successful.

Who was the coolest person that you met?

The way the Marshall works, you don’t meet any of the finalists, but the Rhodes you do. I did meet another girl at the Rhodes finals who had also won the Marshall, and she had spent a year in Kosovo and wants to do refugee studies and has worked for the past year on Darfur issues and is really really a cool person. There were two people from the military, one who was going to end up actually in Iraq. It was so weird, he was like “If I don’t win this, I’m going to end up in Iraq, or else I get to defer.” He didn’t end up winning, so it was kind of painful. The Marshall process was just generally a lot more friendly.

Do they make you unnecessarily anxious with the Rhodes?

No, I don’t think they make you unnecessarily anxious, I think that it really depends on the kind of person you are, whether or not the way they structure their process is going to be something that you like or something that you feel is forced.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Columbia never wins these things.

The people who are [at the Scholarships and Fellowships office] are new, and I think Columbia is trying to make a better effort at getting some of these awards. I really like Dean Pippenger, I think he’s awesome, just totally a cool guy, and was on your side every step of the way. I consider him a friend out of this, I have his cell phone number. I think part of it is—and I think they’ll do more of this next year—is just publicizing it and getting people to apply. A lot of other schools, they’ll ask department heads to give their five people who think could win, and then they’ll e-mail them and ask them to apply. If you get a larger applicant pool, you get higher chances.

The problem is that, because there are only 40 people who win the Marshall and 32 people who win the Rhodes, it’s so personal that once you get to the final round, it so depends on who’s on the committee, what kind of day you’re having, what kind of day they’re having, it’s sort of a hard thing to prepare for. So a big place like Harvard for example, which has a big program and is very established, they have a lot more people making it to the finals, and I think that’s where you would judge how well they’re doing. If you make it to the finals, after that it’s a complete crapshoot.  It’s not about qualifications. That’s not the issue. There are so many amazing people on this campus.

What do you tell people who ask you what to do?

Do not shape your life to try to win one of these awards, because it’s too random, there are too few people who are chosen. That’s not to say don’t prepare, and don’t write essays, and don’t do cool stuff. Do what you want to do, and if you have a passion for it, that will come through. It’s just simply not worth it to spend however many years trying to win one of these. I didn’t even think about it until last January. And I had done weird stuff just because I had weird interests to begin with. Up until junior year, I had had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I interned at the UN, I interned at NY Magazine, two places that couldn’t be any more different, and that ended up with this interesting application. People have this idea that if you win the Rhodes that you have to be this big athlete Bill Clinton charismatic type. Not at all, couldn’t be farther from the truth. The two kids who ended up winning from our district, they’re both like science geeks, and they were probably geniuses, and they respected them for that.

So it’s sort of like applying to college.

I think they expect you to have a greater depth of knowledge into what you want to do. Which is tough, on some levels. Depending on your field, it can work to your advantage, or to your disadvantage. Like for example, being a Russian major is to your advantage on some level because Russia is sexy, but on the other hand, when you’re a Russian major, they feel like they can ask you anything, from Russian music to Russian literature to Vladimir Putin’s eating habits. If you’re a mechanical engineering major, there’s a much more limited field of questions they can pull from. I would actually encourage science majors to apply in particular, because I think that’s certainly something they’re looking for, and I don’t want to say the expectations are lower because that’s not the case, but in the interview, if you’re selling yourself as a humanities person, they expect you to come in there and wow them because your job is to be able to speak and articulate yourself. Versus somebody who’s done amazing research, I think that weighs more heavily. People try to psychoanalyze all these processes. I just think it comes down to whether someone that day being like, ‘yeah, I like him,’ and then arguing about it, and that’s how it pans out.

Who’s your favorite Rhodes winner?

I like Nicholas Kristof. I think he’s a great writer.

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  1. cjs  

    I just wanted to say a few words about this whole process having gone through it myself for the Marshall (with obvious lack of success). First, congratulations to Paul, I know how trying it actually can be attempting to pull your life into one very taught, linear story about why you want to go off and study X.

    What I really hope is that there are none of the usual recriminations over Columbia's "failure" to win a Rhodes. First, Dean Pippenger and his staff are new to the school, and what they've achieved even in their months here is extraordinary. We've been pulled into one of the top spots for Fulbrights, and our application rate for the Marshall went from a handful to 20+. The Fellowships office has had to hire more and more people as a consequence of the increased interest they have brought in, and having this infrastructure can only be extremely advantageous in the future.

    However, I think there are still unnecessary limitations on Columbia students' ability to win these scholarships vis-a-vis those at Harvard and Yale. The most glaring is that those schools identify potential candidates from almost the very beginning of their terms within their respective residential colleges, each of which has a specific advisor for this purpose. They then have the chance to be "shaped" for this competition- apprised of opportunities, trained in the necessary decorum of the competition, etc. Dean Pippenger is a wonderful, fantastic guy, but he can't be shadowing people's lives all over campus as such an army of advisors can do.

    I don't even think that's necessary, however, so much as making more opportunities available for Columbia students to compete with the winners of such competitions. Glance at the Rhodes list and it's relatively clear what the trustees valued- social work abroad, founding student or other groups and institutions, etc. Columbia makes such tasks difficult. Our labyrinthine bureaucracy seems set up to actively block students' extracurricular ambitions, from denying the creation of new groups and publications to having no real equivalent to the large cash grants that, say, Princeton students receive for research anywhere in the world. With a few notable exceptions (like CCE's connections to Wall Street), Columbia students are forced to rely on their own personal finances, ingenuity, or luck to achieve outside the classroom. That makes the achievements of those who do all the more extraordinary, but hardly broadens access to such opportunities for a student body that is otherwise more or less equally talented and qualified to receive such awards.

  2. fan  

    paul's amazing. way to go.

  3. yea  

    this is a pretty solid interview. his points about pippenger are right on. i would say i've never met anyone more helpful in the non-academic side of things. (ie the great columbia bureaucracy) seeing how this is only the first year, and things were in shambles only twelve months ago, things will only get better in the future.

  4. jds  

    I think it's pretty funny that parents read the Bwog (see above post).

  5. brilliant  

    congratulations to paul

  6. Elna  

    Congratulations to Paul! You deserve it!

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