Learning and leading: Ariana Schmidt

You may have seen the picture of the smiling young woman with short, dark hair flashing across Wheaton announcement screens on Saturday, Nov. 18. Above her a boldly lettered announcement exclaimed: “Ariana Schmidt ‘16 is Wheaton’s 2017 Rhodes Finalist!” A moment later, the picture was gone, replaced with the rest of the week’s important reminders. If you blinked, you might have missed it. However, Schmidt’s achievement is not to be overlooked — it enhances Wheaton’s global reputation as a Christian university that produces students who can academically compete with the world’s top scholars and who are making a positive difference in the world.

Each year, 32 young men and women who have completed at least their junior year of college are selected from 16 different districts encompassing all 50 states to study at Oxford for two to three years of postgraduate education. All expenses are provided for these high-achieving students. Approximately 100 Rhodes Scholars are chosen worldwide. Accomplished students from Yale, Harvard and Stanford are some of the most successful applicants, but each year, a school that has never before entered a winning applicant sends a student to Oxford.

Founded in 1902 after the death of Cecil Rhodes, a politician and business giant, the Rhodes Trust has been accepting high-achieving, world-changing American students since 1904. Applicants are expected to be academically competitive in order to demonstrate their consistent passion for learning and leading. They are required to rise to the top of their class, leading in different capacities nationally and showing effective management skills under pressure. They also need to care deeply about those who have suffered injustices and be actively engaged in positively impacting the world through service, fulfilling Rhodes’ vision: Scholars should “esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim.”

However, often neglected in the hubbub of the competition are those who don’t receive the coveted title of “Rhodes Scholar” — the Rhodes finalists, who numbered 228 in 2017. These individuals reach the final stages of the competition, and while they don’t get a full ride to Oxford, the respected title of “Rhodes Finalist” opens many doors in high-power leadership positions worldwide. Schmidt earned this distinguished title for the second consecutive year, the only Rhodes Finalist in Wheaton history.

Schmidt has always had the drive to succeed, according to her Rhodes Scholarship advisor, Professor of Anthropology Brian Howell. As he settled down in his leather chair amidst stacks of books in his office, he gushed about Schmidt’s extraordinary work ethic. “She was, as you would expect, really proactive about finding the information that she needed and putting together her application, and corresponding with me about the recommendations,” he told the Record. “She’s a really self-motivated person, so I didn’t have to do a lot of hand-holding, I didn’t have to coax her along, and that’s part of the success that you’re seeing in her life.” These are just the type of students that qualify for the Rhodes Scholarship: those who grasp hold of life’s opportunities and confidently communicate their own perspectives.

Schmidt is uniquely positioned to share her perspective on the breakdown between policy and reality in majority world countries due to her adolescent experiences. She said that growing up as a missionary kid in Niger set the stage for her deep-seated passions for policy changes on a global level. “I had the opportunity to volunteer in orphanages, hospitals and Sunday Schools, though my favorite was working in a Kids’ Club tutoring elementary students in math, writing and reading,” Schmidt remembered. “We would meet beneath this one tree at the Nigerian teacher’s house and sit on whatever was available. It was a great experience of learning how to encourage and instill confidence in these kids who had experienced a lot of failure so far.”

Later, her childhood in Niger impacted her service during her time at Wheaton. As a volunteer with World Relief during her college years, Schmidt developed a new appreciation for the refugee situation in the States. “The Burmese family I worked with taught me a lot about some of the struggles, frustrations and fears refugees face in addition to their incredible fortitude,” she reflected. “I have thought about that family a lot as I work in Iraq with displaced people.”  

Becoming sensitive to the failures and trials experienced by families born into poverty helped her in her educational endeavors as she transitioned from Niger to Wheaton, after spending her senior year in the United States. Schmidt double majored in International Relations and French at Wheaton, graduating in three years. Schmidt told the Record that she quickly grew tired of hearing about the virtues of the liberal arts education. However, in retrospect, she is “very grateful for the breadth of Wheaton’s core curriculum which encouraged me to engage with a variety of issues and perspectives. The wealth of out-of-class lecture opportunities further exposed me and encouraged me to critically examine why I thought what I did.”

She also mentioned the incredible faculty at Wheaton as being the impetus for much of her success. “This might be a cliché, but it is true. Faculty members at Wheaton are superb in their genuine desire to get to know you and see you grow both spiritually and academically. Without their encouragement I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to apply for something like this.” Schmidt specifically remembers how her relationships with Professor of Political Science Mark Amstutz and Associate Professor of French Sheri Abel impacted her personal growth. “Dr. Amstutz talks about the importance of having ‘fire in the belly,’ and I appreciate his investment into growing that in me,” Schmidt recalled. As she met regularly with Abel, the French professor “modeled and taught me so much about the joy of walking with God and finding rest and peace in Him.” This support from faculty and the academic rigor of Wheaton prepared her for applying for both the Marshall’s and the Rhodes scholarships, Schmidt says, as the liberal arts allowed her to evaluate and speak about the world from a number of different perspectives. Working as a T.A. for Amstutz taught her “how to think critically, write concisely and be professional.”

Later, as part of her French major, Schmidt had the opportunity to study abroad in fast-growing Montpellier, France. The city is home to several universities, and about a third of the population is students. By immersing herself in this environment, Schmidt’s understanding of French culture and language skills skyrocketed. Even so, she called her experience there a “great opportunity for learning how to make mistakes.” According to Schmidt, “Language learning is humbling but so rewarding and that experience has helped me to take on other challenges.”

During her sophomore year, Schmidt applied to intern with the U.S. State Department and was selected for the two-summer internship. “The first summer I worked in D.C. on African economic policy and the second summer in Phnom Penh working in Public Affairs,” she remembers. At first, Schmidt was worried that she was coming into the prestigious internship unprepared — her previous work experience included working as a server at the Henry Doorly Zoo cafeteria and Gino’s East Wheaton, painting houses and copy-editing for a small construction company. She quickly realized, however, that her work experience had actually trained her well. “What I have found is that the lessons I learned in those jobs — stepping up to do the dirty work, dealing with upset customers, working physically hard — served as great training for other positions,” Schmidt explained. “Regardless of how cool an internship or job is, you will have to do work you don’t love, work with difficult people and push yourself. Now I am grateful for those learning and growing opportunities.” Without learning professionalism and engaging with real-world issues through the State Department internships, Schmidt doubts that she could have reached her scholastic and professional goals.

For a long time, these goals did not include applying for the Rhodes Scholarship. In fact, Schmidt only found out about the scholarship during the spring of her senior year at Wheaton. “She’s one that almost got away,” Howell said. He chuckled as he described how he had to pursue her to apply, not the other way around. He said that Schmidt’s reticence in applying for the scholarship is typical of top students at Wheaton: “Like a lot of our top students, she came in with a fistful of AP credits, and she took 18 credits every semester, sometimes 20, and she graduated in three years. This has been the biggest challenge that I’ve had in this position: finding the students who are doing these extraordinary things, who are achieving at a high level, are doing a lot, because they don’t have time to come talk to me!”

Howell found out about Schmidt at a party when he was talking to two members of the political science department who had had her in class. He mentioned he was looking for top students to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship and they recommended her. ‘I’ve heard that you’re quite a person, and I need to talk to you,’ Howell remembers telling Schmidt in an email. Schmidt was lying on her couch in Terrace at the time, recovering from her recent wisdom teeth removal, when she got the email. “It completely took me by surprise and at first I thought I had received the email in error,” she said. “I googled the scholarships and thought, ‘No way. That is way too prestigious for someone like me.’” Curious, she went to talk to Howell, who persuaded her to apply for both the Marshall and the Rhodes. She would later receive the coveted position of Finalist for both prestigious scholarships.

The application process is daunting. Schmidt detailed the steps to applying for the Rhodes scholarship: First comes an intimidating 1,000 word personal statement, which Schmidt says “you edit and re-edit until you practically have it memorized.” Then come the five to eight letters of recommendation. Once the application is submitted by early October, interviews and a reception are scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving. The results are announced on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The process of applying is usually a learning experience in itself. “The process of selecting programs and writing the essays forced me to think intentionally about what I wanted to do, study and understand,” Schmidt said. “Regardless of the outcome, it has given me a better sense of where I want to go in life.”

This clarity of vision was the first thing that Howell noticed about Schmidt. “Her sense of what she wanted to do in the world and where God was leading her — she could just speak of it with such precision … She’s very focused on international development,” he explained. “She could see how big development was failing and how there was a lack of connect between on-the-ground realities and the decisions that were being made at a high level, and she knew that she could see from her vantage point what some of those breakdowns were. And she wanted to get into those breakdowns and fix them. Her ability to talk about that, and her studies, and experiences, her childhood, her faith, her passion — all of that was part of the picture. And she could talk about it all.” He threw out his hands as he exclaimed, “I was like … this is great!”

Schmidt’s experience as a finalist has prepared her for the position that she now occupies. Soon after applying for the Rhodes the first time, she accepted a two-month internship with Samaritan’s Purse. Schmidt now works full time as the Program Development Officer for Samaritan’s Purse in Mosul, Iraq. “Basically, I help write new projects for external or internal funding and support our ongoing projects,” Schmidt explained enthusiastically. “I love my role because it involves research, writing, designing and implementation. Every day is something a bit different and I am humbled by the projects God has allowed me to be a part of there and the people I have met.”

Even though Schmidt did not win the designation of Rhodes Scholar, she is grateful for the experience. “I remember last year walking down the hill from the building where we interviewed with a number of the other candidates,” she told the Record. “While I was obviously disappointed, I found myself very grateful that God plans my steps and defines my worth; not an interview, a title, a CV, or anything else. It is liberating. Not winning the Rhodes or the Marshall was part of God’s good plan for me and I can trust Him in that.”

Schmidt recognizes how much she has learned throughout the process of personal and academic exploration that the Rhodes jumpstarted. “The experience of getting close but not all the way forced me to be honest about my identity, worth and pressure to perform. I am grateful for the experience of wrestling with that. I still have a lot to learn,” she reflected soberly, “but this process has definitely helped.”

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