The College of Idaho's incredible Rhodes Scholar legacy
The average American is 12 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the Rhodes Scholarship.
The odds seem even longer at The College of Idaho, a rural campus of just 1,050. But since 1954, lightning has struck seven times at the C of I, most recently last fall when 2012 graduate Amanda Frickle received academia’s most prestigious award.
It is a number that puts the College among the top 1 percent of schools in Rhodes Scholars per capita.
“The College of Idaho produces independent-minded students,” said C of I President Marv Henberg, a 1971 Rhodes Scholar himself. “We have a curriculum that encourages exploration and a faculty that supports and challenges students to both recognize and maximize their potential. As long as that’s the case, our students are going to remain very competitive for the Rhodes.”
Frickle joins a prestigious list that also includes Erling Skorpen (1954), Ted Wills (1960), Tom McFadden (1968), James Roelofs (1969), Michael Woodhouse (1987) and Adam Rindfleisch (1993). It’s an impressive number for any school, let alone a small liberal arts college in little-known Caldwell, Idaho.
Named after Cecil John Rhodes—a legendary English-born South African businessman, politician and scholar—the Rhodes Scholarship has been recognized as the crown jewel of academic honors virtually since its establishment in 1902. Rhodes Scholars may apply to study any full-time postgraduate course in the residential college of their choice at the University of Oxford in England, with tuition, fees and a monthly stipend paid for by the Rhodes Trust.
Only 32 American students—and 82 worldwide—are selected as Rhodes Scholars each year. The lions’ share come from prestigious Ivy League schools, but the C of I has left an indelible mark.
"I love telling people I went to The College of Idaho,” said Frickle, who served as student body president and double-majored in history and political economy at the College. “There are a lot of big-name schools represented by Rhodes Scholars, but coming from the C of I really stands out and gives me an opportunity to tell people about the type of education I received there.”
Rindfleisch, a 1993 graduate, had been the College’s most recent Rhodes winner. But he’s proud to pass that title to Frickle and excited to see who the next C of I Rhodes Scholar will be.
“It’s pretty remarkable that a school the size of the C of I has produced as many Rhodes Scholars as it has,” Rindfleisch said. “To me, it all boils down to the people there and how much they care about what they are doing. When you combine smart, enthusiastic students with a place that catalyzes that enthusiasm, it’s only a matter of time before our number continues to grow.”
THE C OF I LEGACY
The College of Idaho’s first Rhodes Scholar was the late Skorpen in 1954. Skorpen, born in a Norwegian community in Brooklyn, went on from the C of I and Oxford to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University. He later taught philosophy at Yale, the University of Nevada-Reno and the University of Maine, where he earned the Distinguished University of Maine Professor award in 1975.
Skorpen passed away in 2004, but his Rhodes Scholarship and excellence in teaching set a high standard for future C of I Rhodes Scholars that exists to this day. Wills followed in Skorpen’s scholarly footsteps six years later in 1960, and the College was off and running.
“I wasn’t a great student in high school, but I kind of caught fire at the College,” said Wills, who majored in philosophy and was an active debater. “I think the personal attention I received from my instructors had a lot to do with that. I don’t know that many students from the College were applying for the Rhodes in those days, but I’m glad I was fortunate enough to be chosen. It’s an experience I’m very grateful for.”
McFadden and Roelofs took home the Rhodes in back-to-back years, closing the 1960s with a flourish. They and each of the subsequent C of I Rhodes Scholars have carried on a proud legacy while adding to it their own distinguishing successes and experiences.
“I’m certainly glad every time I see someone from the College win the Rhodes,” Roelofs said. “For me, it affirms the value that both the College and the Rhodes Trust place on a liberal arts education.”
THE OXFORD EXPERIENCE
Each C of I Rhodes Scholar points to the educational system at Oxford as a memorable and often surprising aspect of their Rhodes experience. Woodhouse, the College’s 1987 Rhodes winner, says Oxford students first and foremost are taught to think for themselves.
“It’s a very different way of learning,” Woodhouse said. “In America, everything is based on feedback through exams. At Oxford, you don’t really have exams and lectures, but rather a tutor. You read books, write essays and read your work to the tutor, so you’re constantly reading, writing and discussing. It quickly instills in you your own sense of judgment for determining whether your work is good or not. It fosters independence in students.”
Oxford introduces students to new cultural and social experiences, too. Rindfleisch recalls feeling like a fish out of water, “but in a good way.”
“It’s a surreal experience,” Rindfleisch said. “You get to attend these formal balls and participate in traditions that date back hundreds of years. My first year, I lived in a building from the 1200s. The floor of my room sloped about a foot from one side to the other!”
Rhodes Scholars often are afforded an opportunity to travel throughout Europe and other parts of the world thanks to Oxford’s unique academic year, which features three intense eight-week terms separated by long breaks. McFadden took the opportunity to see “most of Europe,” while Woodhouse visited 42 countries—“not bad for someone who grew up on a potato farm in Idaho.”
Adventure also abounds on Oxford’s medieval campus, which is perpetually filled by some of the brightest young minds in the world. McFadden, for instance, was Rhodes classmates with U.S. President Bill Clinton and two of his future cabinet members, Strobe Talbott and Robert Reich, in 1968.
“You definitely meet some interesting people,” McFadden said. “Clinton was a very congenial guy, very bright and obviously ambitious. Years later, Strobe Talbott was featured in Vanity Fair, and one of the pictures they used was from Oxford. I’m standing right next to him, so I got my picture in Vanity Fair.
“As a Rhodes Scholar, you cherish every moment you’re there because you realize you’re a part of something very special.”
PROFESSORS WHO PUSH
The seven C of I Rhodes Scholars span seven decades, and much has changed at the College in that time. But each Rhodes winner credited C of I faculty members as the driving force behind their successful application and, in many cases, the only reason they applied at all.
“I attribute my selection to the support of my C of I professors,” Roelofs said. “We live in a time where ‘education’ seems to imply schooling rather than the ideals I have always associated with the College. With news of our recent student success, I like to think those ideals remain present on campus.”
The names have changed—from College icons Dr. Louie Attebery, Dr. William Chalker, Margaret Sinclair and Dr. George Wolfe to contemporaries such as Dr. Jann Adams, Dr. Howard Berger, Dr. Jasper LiCalzi and Dr. Steve Maughan—but the teaching ideals Roelofs lauds and the knack for helping students recognize and then fulfill their potential have persisted amongst the C of I faculty.
“My professors definitely deserve a lot of credit for keeping me on track,” Frickle said. “They encouraged and supported me throughout the process and wrote great letters of recommendation. It makes me so grateful that I attended a school where the professors knew me and cared about me. I think that made all the difference.”
Woodhouse recalls an ambush by Professor Wolfe during his freshman year as the beginning of his path to the Rhodes.
“Dr. Wolfe was no longer teaching, but he advised students on scholarships,” Woodhouse said. “I knocked on his door to talk to him one day, not really planning on anything in particular. He opens the door, and in his German accent, he says ‘Ah, Mr. Woodhouse. I hear you want to become a Rhodes Scholar! Come, we have no time to lose!’
“I didn’t even know exactly what the Rhodes was, but before I could say no, he was planning my schedule and setting things up for the next three-and-a-half years.”
McFadden likewise had no intention of applying for the Rhodes until the idea was pushed forward by Wolfe and other professors at the College.
“I would never even have imagined applying for the Rhodes but for teachers like Sinclair, Wolfe, Chalker and Attebery,” McFadden said. “In fact, I was quite convinced I wouldn’t get it, and I didn’t want to fail. But the people close to me would not allow me to fail. I know without a doubt that what happened for me at The College of Idaho rarely, if ever, happens at larger institutions.”
FULFILLING THE RHODES
The Rhodes Scholar title is one that stays with its recipient for life. The scholarship remains a boon to its recipients many years after they leave the storied halls of Oxford, helping with everything from scholarly pursuits and job interviews to conversations at dinner parties.
“It definitely sticks with you,” Henberg said. “Even for people who don’t know what a Rhodes Scholar is, the association tends to be positive. People think it makes you some sort of genius, which is crazy of course.”
Adds McFadden: “When I came back to the States, it seemed like no door was closed to me. Being able to put ‘Rhodes Scholar’ on your resume definitely gives you a leg up. It’s an experience that marks you forever.”
The Rhodes also carries with it an expectation of leadership, kindliness and an interest in the good of humanity. Many Rhodes Scholars choose career paths with an eye toward public service, including politics, education, law, medicine and scientific research. The College of Idaho’s Rhodes Scholars have gone on to great success in fields of service. Skorpen was beloved as an educator. Wills too taught at several colleges and universities, while McFadden, who recently retired as library director at Union College in New York, and Roelofs, a longtime public educator in California, also plied their skills in halls of learning.
Woodhouse’s path led him to law, where he practices as an attorney for Trinity Health and the Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise. And Rindfleisch is a doctor of family and integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he blends traditional medicine with naturopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic methods in an effort to give each patient the best possible chance at healing.
“There definitely is an emphasis for Rhodes Scholars to change the world for the better,” Rindfleisch said. “I enjoy being able to use my training to help people.”
Frickle has been accepted into the graduate program in women’s studies at Oxford, where she plans to focus on advocacy for LGBT and women’s rights in the United States and Latin America. Frickle studied the topic extensively at the College—she presented a research paper on feminism in Brazil both at the C of I Student Research Conference and at a conference sponsored by national history honor society Pi Alpha Theta—and she is passionate about seeing it through, even if it might not lead to the wealth and prestige that accompany other popular Rhodes careers.
“Rhodes Scholars tend to be successful people,” Frickle said. “But I think the award really is about helping people. I hope to become a community organizer and have the ability to make a real difference in at least some people’s lives, and to me, that is success.”
AN EYE TO THE FUTURE
Frickle is one of four Rhodes Scholarship finalists from The College of Idaho since 2007. Taylor St. John (2007), Derek Erstad (2008) and Colleen Smith (2011) also were nominated, a fact that Henberg says is just as noteworthy and encouraging as Frickle’s 2012 win. In addition, current senior Tyler Hatch became the College’s third Truman Scholar last spring.
“I’m very pleased to see so many of our students shooting to climb tallest trees in the forest,” Henberg said. “The competition is fierce, but even if you miss, there are a lot of other tall trees to fall into.”
Wills agrees, saying the reward of applying far outweighs the risk of being turned down.
“Even being nominated is a tremendous feather in your cap,” Wills said. “By all means, apply. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”
Wills and his fellow Rhodes Scholars look back fondly on their years at Oxford as an eye-opening, often life-changing experience. Soon, Frickle will embark on her own Rhodes quest to make her mark on the world.
Meanwhile, The College of Idaho continues to attract hundreds of bright, young, independent thinkers. Semester after semester, minds are stretched and ideas are challenged as students are mentored by professors with a proven knack for getting the most out of their graduates.
It is only a matter of time until lightning strikes again.