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At the End of the Rhodes

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Duke

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At the End of the Rhodes

One Scholar's Uncommon Path

Reed McLaurin

12.7.17

Though Gabi Stewart presents an unshowy exterior, lying beneath the surface is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, and compelling people you’ll ever meet. Growing up homeschooled and evangelical in Charleston, South Carolina before becoming the class of 2018’s only Classical Languages major and a Rhodes Scholar, Gabi has taken an uncommon path. And while the latter award has garnered significant attention, I wanted to see how her varied experiences and interests have culminated in her most monumental achievement yet.

Navigating high school sucks. Being in public school for the first time makes it suck more. “That was a very rough transition for me. I wouldn’t have been able to do the academic catch up, the social catch up, without my teachers.” But between this support system and her intellect (“I was 100% a total nerd”), Gabi succeeded in and out of the classroom, founding a Best Buddies program among other service ventures. After being awarded the BN Duke scholarship for North and South Carolina residents with exceptional academic achievement and community service involvement, she decided to come to Duke.

Once here, Gabi began to more intentionally pursue community engagement opportunities that she “ended up emphasizing even more than the academics.” During the scholarship’s finalist weekend, she met older BNs involved in the Community Empowerment Fund, or CEF, a local non-profit enabling and sustaining transitions out of homelessness and poverty through relationship-based support and financial services. Joining in her first semester, Gabi’s “ethos for service” and understanding of social justice work were quickly shaped through experiences and conversations at CEF. Since then, she has held a variety of CEF student leadership positions and become a founding executive board member of the Coalition for Alleviating Poverty.

Academics weren’t so straight-forward. Gabi declared her Classical Languages major the last week possible and initially took Latin only to complete the language requirement without having to speak. But once she become involved in the discipline, she found herself intrigued by its persistence into the modern era. “It was kind of an ethnographical question...These people have been dead for thousands of years. Why do we care?” The easy answer is that she was intrigued by the rigorous study of Greek philosophy and enjoyed becoming a more disciplined thinker by understanding the wisdom in the Western canon.

But the tension between an extracurricular involvement in community-based work and an academic interest in a discipline seen as a symbol of the “Ivory Tower” of academia was not lost on her. Since the 60s, female voices, queer voices, and other new perspectives have begun to enter conversations on the classics. Inspired by this shifting landscape, Gabi began to “attack the study at the margins.” Just as she sought to amplify the voices of marginalized communities through extracurricular activities, she engaged in research focused on “ameliorating silences and excavating lost voices” from antiquity. This common motivation has helped bridge her two worlds.

Planning to become a high school history teacher and emulate those pivotal mentors in her own life, Gabi never imagined pursuing the Rhodes. Then, over a coffee, Bill Wright-Swadel of the Duke Career Center corrected her misconception that the scholarship was only academic in nature and assured her that a candidate with such holistic qualifications could be competitive. Unfortunately, the Duke Fellowship Office, which shepherds applicants through the process, had a set of initial essay questions due that day. “I had to say to myself: ‘OK, if I want to do this, I’m gonna have to pull an all-nighter.” A few months and several late nights later, Gabi was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, widely consider one of the world’s most prestigious. And who said cramming never works?

With her scholarship, Gabi will design a fully funded program of study at Oxford University comprised of two single-year Masters degrees. At Oxford, she hopes to study the role of Classical Studies in secondary education and the practice of Papyrology. (For those who aren’t in the know, that’s the study of ancient literature written on papyrus.) After that, she’ll get her teacher certification back stateside.

When she isn’t winning absurdly competitive scholarships, Gabi is in fact a normal person. “At Duke, we sometimes we forget we’re human. We see ourselves as automatons of our resumes, and I try to be intentional about not being like that.” To decompress and recharge, she loves to sing, write songs, and strum away at a variety of instruments. After all she’s accomplished, I’d say some self-care is in order. Play away, Gabi, and congrats.