As we continue our Blacks Making History campaign to close out Black History month, we're continuing to showcase YBF people doing amazing things you don't hear much about. For the first time in U.S. history, a total of 32 people from America were selected as prestigious Rhodes Scholars...and three are YBF ladies.
Meet one of the young, black and fabulous 2013 Rhodes Scholars who graduated with honors from Yale, and has a fierce and fun persona. Plus, we dig her love for hip hop...
Southside Chicago native Rhiana Gunn-Wright is putting the windy city in the headlines for all the right reasons. Amidst the chaos and the drama plaguing the city, she's been featured on the front page in top news publications for receiving one of the biggest honors in the country. She's joining the company former Presidents and world leaders, and she's barely in her 20's.
The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship is one of the top international awards bestowed on VERY few of the world's most impressive intellects who show through their scholastic and extracurricular endeavors. And they are world changers. They're the type of people who show you from the first impression that they're going to do "something." You might not know what that something is....but it's going to be big. Award recipients range from former President Bill Clinton to former US Ambassador Susan Rice to Newark Mayor Cory Booker (to name a few).
Rhiana, who graduated magna cum laude from Yale University in 2011 with majors in African American Studies and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, is the newest Rhodes Scholar....and a true YBF chick. TheYBF.com spoke with her and we're extra impressed by her commitment to improving the world around her. And doing so while maintaining her rigorous academic schedule and active social life. She embodies what it means to be young, Black and fabulous. She works hard...lives her life...and keeps focused on her goals. Here's our chat:
What does it feel like to be named a Rhodes Scholar?
It feels insane and incredible all at once. It’s still hard for me believe that it actually happened. I want to hit a wall slide whenever I think about it. I just feel so incredibly blessed and grateful for the opportunity; it’s really amazing to see the Lord use my life like this.
How did you find out you were selected--and what was your initial response?
I found out a couple of hours after my one-on-one interview. I was sitting in a room with all of the other finalists from my District—all of whom were lovely, extremely impressive people—and the selection committee just came out and read the names of the candidates who won. I was shocked. It felt like everything was moving in slow motion. I was just staring at the Chairman with my mouth wide open after he said my name. Then I started making that real surprised Taylor Swift face. And THEN I started doing that thing beauty queens do when they win where they fan themselves real fast and cover their mouths. Basically, I was in a glass case of emotion and looking real foolish.
Do you remember when you first learned about the Rhodes Scholars and what led you to apply?
The first time I seriously learned about the Rhodes was my sophomore or junior year in college when my academic advisor told me I should consider applying. I researched the scholarship a little bit, but I didn’t want to go straight to graduate school after graduation so I decided not to apply. Then earlier last year, I was at work, and one of my co-workers told me about Cory Booker saving his neighbor from a burning building. (The man is basically a superhero.) So I started googling Cory Booker, and I learned that he was a Rhodes Scholar. Something just clicked. He is so committed to service, and it seemed like the Rhodes helped him to get to a place where he could serve others on a very broad scale. I knew that I wanted to do that same kind of work, so I decided to apply.
You seem well on your way to making your mark on Black History. How important has education been to you on this journey?
Education has been extremely important. I mean I’ve always been a nerd. I’ve always liked to read and learn and think. But school gave me a place to channel that energy, and it taught me how to use it to create things—ideas, stories, whatever—that I thought could make life better. Plus, school has been where I have met some of my best friends and teachers. I would really be nowhere without my education.
What are you plans after you complete your studies?
I want to work on public policy, mostly related to poverty. It sounds kind of corny, but I really believe that it is our duty as Americans to care for one another in our times and places of need. Poverty is a factor in so many problems in our society, and I don’t think our country addresses the issue as well—or as humanely—as we should. I want to help us figure out how to do that better, so that we’re better serving those who are poor AND helping people climb out of poverty.
Who do you consider to be "YBF" in your mind?
Beyoncé. Solange. Gabby Douglas. Many, many of my friends. Really, I consider anyone “YBF” who works hard, is honest about who they are, and lives their life in a way that brings them joy. They also need to at least be trying to make wise choices. Can’t be acting a mess out in these streets.
When faced with adversity, what do you pull from to stay motivated and focused?
I pray a LOT. During my Rhodes application process, I know God must have been like “Girl, HUSH.”
I also try to find some songs that speaks to how I’m feeling. I played out Big KRIT’s “Boobie Miles”, Kendrick Lamar’s "Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” and Lianne La Havas “Is Your Love Big Enough?” when I was applying. I have to play some music that just knocks from time to time too. I gotta get hype!
Who are you listening to on your IPOD/Pandora station/Spotify?
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake. A lot of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. Some Gap Band and Anita Baker. I’ve had some Chicago hip hop artists like Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper in heavy rotation too.
What can someone (school students) do now to prepare to be a Rhodes Scholar?
You have to do the things that prepare you to excel in school. If you don’t have good study habits early on, it can be hard to hustle backwards and get it together later. Just get used to going hard when it comes to school. Also, find some interests outside of yourself. It doesn’t have to be volunteering necessarily; it can be music, art, math, whatever. Find something that feels important to you and commit yourself to it.
You will be across the pond soon-- what are some must haves you're taking with you?
Hair products. My Netflix and Hulu+ subscriptions. A bottle of hot sauce. Lay’s Tangy Carolina BBQ chips and a couple bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Garrett’s popcorn.
If you could bring 5 people across the pond with you to keep you company (dead or alive)--who would they be?
That’s hard! Probably my family, my girls, Ashley and Christina, and my goddaughter Amaya.
You're a Chicago native--and with all the recent press about the violence happening there-- what are some words of encouragement for young people there?
I am so saddened every time I hear about another person being gunned down in my city. So much of the violence is happening in the neighborhood where I grew up and in areas where I have family and friends. Honestly, it’s really hard for me to talk about. I would just tell the young people in Chicago that they should be encouraged by their own strength and bravery. To walk around in communities that are basically war zones, much less to go to school, to take care of yourself, to do right by the people you love—that takes real courage. And that’s what they’re doing every day. They should be proud of that and know that they have the type of heart that can carry them wherever they want to go in life. If they can make it in Chicago, they can make it anywhere.
And Rhiana (who will begin her studies at Oxford in October) wasn't the only young, black and fabulous individual to be name a Rhodes scholar this year. She will be joined by two other YBF ladies in her cohort. According to the Journal of Blacks In Higher Education,
Joy A. Buolamwini is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she majored in computer science. She is currently working at the Carter Center in Atlanta. She has founded or co-founded three businesses. She plans on a degree in African studies at Oxford.
Nina M. Yancy is a senior at Harvard University where she majors in social studies. Yancy grew up in the Dallas area but her family recently moved to Chicago. Yancy has had internships at CNN, the Center for American Political Studies and in the British House of Commons. She is a member of the Harvard Ballet Company. She plans on pursuing a master’s degree in global health science as a Rhodes Scholar.
Congratulations to all of the ladies!
Photos via IWPR/Georgia Tech/Yancy