George Mason University

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Mason’s Joe Russell a Rhodes Scholarship finalist

November 13, 2017   /   by Damian Cristodero

Joe Russell

Joe Russell, a senior government and international politics major, is a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. He wants to be a civil- and voting-rights advocate or perhaps run for public office. Photo by Ron Aira.

Joe Russell said he is trying — really trying — to not think too much about the interview that could change his life.

Even so, his upcoming trip to San Francisco on Nov. 17-18, when the George Mason University senior will interview for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, is never far from his mind.

“It’s definitely weird to wrap my mind around it, and I’m trying not to think about the whole aura of Rhodes,” the government and international politics major said. “It doesn’t do me any good to freak myself out going into it.”

Rhodes Scholarships, first awarded in 1902, are the world’s oldest and most celebrated international fellowships, providing two years of study in England at one of Oxford University’s 30 colleges.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar, as was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, feminist and author Naomi Wolf, former NBA star and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, and astronomer Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named.

“It’d be crazy to be associated with folks like that,” Russell said.

Only 32 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded each year in the United States, two from each of 16 districts, out of about 2,500 applicants.

Each applicant must submit academic transcripts, a resume, a 1,000-word mission statement, and eight letters of recommendation from faculty members or administrators. George Mason President Ángel Cabrera submitted one for Russell.

As many as 20 applicants can be chosen in each district and interviewed by a Rhodes committee made up of former Rhodes scholars. Russell applied in District 15, which includes his home state of Arizona, Nevada, Northern California, and Hawaii. Winners could be announced as early as Nov. 18.

Mason’s last Rhodes finalist was sociology major Mona Singh in 2007, and the university has never had a Rhodes scholarship winner.

But Rich Rubenstein, a University Professor at Mason who has been the Rhodes representative on campus for 20 years, said Russell, a member of the Honors College and a University Scholar with a 3.95 GPA, is the most accomplished applicant to come out of Mason and “certainly has a fighting chance” to win.

“He’s as good as we’ve seen,” said Rubenstein, who is helping Russell prep for his interview. “You’re talking about extreme excellence on the academic side. But where the decisions often get made is with the applicant’s ability to be excellent in other areas. They want you to show excellence and passion in an area not necessarily the one you are good in as an academician.”

Russell, also a Truman Scholarship winner, took the fall 2016 semester off to work for the Arizona Democratic Party as a paid senior field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

He is president and a founding member of Mason’s Student Health Advisory Board, which serves as a liaison between students and campus administrators in determining student health care options on campus. He is political director of the campus chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, which focuses on policy writing and advocacy, and issue awareness campaigns.

He also managed this year’s re-election campaign of Virginia delegate David Bulova.

“Joe is one of the most humble, most giving and intelligent students I ever worked with,” said LaNitra Berger, director of the Office of Fellowships in the Honors College. “He has done magnificent work here to improve the quality of life.”

Russell’s long-term plans include law school, with immigrant rights his main concentration, and perhaps a run for office in his native Arizona.

A Rhodes scholarship would help those plans, he said, not only because of the ability to study the political changes in England, and how those changes might predict what happens in the United States, but because of the networking opportunities.

“Just having that little extra pedigree can get me in a door and put me in a position where I can really make a difference,” Russell said. “That would be incredible.”