(NNPA)–Joshua Aiken, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, grew up all over the country. His family moved from New Mexico to Tennessee, California, Texas, Iowa and Arizona.
“It made me really conscious of what identity meant in different places,” Aiken said.
He often found himself being the only Black student in his class – and he noticed how only some of his teachers were sensitive to this.
“For example, reading Huckleberry Finn,” he said, “Some teachers took into consideration how a person of color would take that experience.” (A main character in the novel is referred to throughout using the N-word.)
Others did not. Since high school, Aiken has been on a journey to study more inclusive policies and practices around the world.
“I have always wanted to give voice to marginalized communities, whether they have been communities of color or LGBT communities,” Aiken said. “I have had the experience of being able to live openly and freely and to be who I am. Knowing that so many people can’t do that motivates me.”
On November 23, Aiken was one of 32 Americans chosen as a Rhodes Scholar. Considered among the world’s most prestigious academic awards, Rhodes Scholarships provide all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. He and the other winners were selected from 857 applicants, and the scholarship equates to about $50,000 per year.
At Oxford, Aiken plans to earn two master’s degrees – one in U.S. history and another in refugee and forced migration studies, studying the experience of refugees and asylum seekers.
Currently Aiken, 21, is majoring in American culture studies and political science, with a minor in psychology. His undergraduate career has allowed him to explore his passion for both domestic civil liberties and international human rights, he said. This year, Aiken has served as Humanity in Action American fellow, and in 2012 he was a U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission Summer Institute participant and a U.S. House of Representatives legislative intern.
“Josh is such an extraordinary gift to our community, and the Rhodes Scholarship is fitting recognition of his unlimited potential to be a force of positive change in our world,” said Joy Zalis Kiefer, associate dean of Arts & Sciences and director of undergraduate research at WUSTL.
Aiken has been highly involved in various diversity initiatives on campus as the undergraduate representative to the WUSTL Board of Trustees. He also serves as co-chair of the Mosaic Project, a new program devoted to strengthening inclusion on campus.
However, his interest in inclusion on a global scale solidified after he spent last summer working at a refugee camp in Berlin with a human rights program. Most of the people he met were coming from the Middle East and Africa, “where they have very different backgrounds from the people they were living with,” he said.
“My interest is really in working with persecuted individuals in whatever identity they may have been persecuted for,” he said.
On campus, Aiken performs with WU-SLam, Washington University’s award-winning spoken-word poetry team. He is also a member of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program, which provides a four-year scholarship to students who have demonstrated both exceptional academic and leadership skills, and is part of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service Civic Scholars Program. Both of the programs had a profound impact on him, he said.
Aiken feels the Rhodes Scholarship is a reflection of his supportive network at the university, especially the Ervin Scholars program.
“I am definitely a compilation of all the influential people I’ve met,” he said. “I am a people-oriented person, and the honor speaks to the people who I’ve benefitted spending time with.”
It’s also a reflection of his loving family. Although his parents currently live in Eugene, Oregon, his two brothers also attended WUSTL. He said he was fortunate enough to have them in St. Louis for his entire college career.
“They are not only my best friends but the two people who I look up to the most in the world,” he said.
Growing up, he said, his parents urged them to explore – and they had plenty of opportunities to encounter new things with his family constantly moving. Currently his father, Ron, is University of Oregon’s defensive line coach. Prior to that, he coached six years with the Arizona Cardinals professional football team, and previously he coached in the college ranks at Iowa, San Diego State, Vanderbilt and New Mexico.
“My parents were always so invested in giving us opportunities to learn,” Joshua said. “A lot of that came through with my dad’s role as a coach. One thing that makes me proud of my dad as a coach is that he has always believed in student athletes. He cared about them as students and people first.”
Joshua graduated from Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona, where he twice was named “Student of the Year.” He leaves for Oxford in September and hopes to return in time to spend a year working on a U.S. political campaign in 2016. Then he plans to attend law school.