Pitt alumna Eleanor Ott wins 2010 Rhodes Scholarship

By Marissa Meredyth

Pitt alumna Eleanor Ott spent four hours in a room with some of her toughest competitors earlier… Pitt alumna Eleanor Ott spent four hours in a room with some of her toughest competitors earlier this month.

Ott, who graduated from Pitt in April, was one of 12 people in the region and 216 in the country who was interviewed for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholarship is unique in that those considered for it find out if they’ve won on the same day as their interviews, Ott said in an e-mail. She sat in a room with the finalists from her region, each one knowing that only two of them would win the scholarship.

“We had just gone through every card in my party deck of Apples to Apples as the panel members had debated for almost four hours. I was sitting around a table with 11 other extremely qualified and brilliant individuals and felt realistic about my chances,” Ott said.

The panel members announced that Ott, along with Andrew J. McCall, of Truman State University in Missouri, received the 2010 Rhodes Scholarship to study in Oxford, England.

“When I first found out, I was in a state of disbelief,” she said.

Ott, who graduated with degrees in history, French and chemistry, will use her scholarship to study at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, a decision University administrators were quick to praise.

Alec Stewart, dean of the Honors College, said in a statement that Ott “has taught us that, for her, change through empowerment takes heart, stamina and ability to lead on an international level.

“Her decision to pursue graduate work at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre is indicative of what she values: knowledge that can provide a glimmer of hope in the perplexingly catastrophic lives of refugees,” he said.

Ott founded and was co-president of the refugee advocacy organization FORGEPitt, or Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Empowerment, and she hopes to one day become the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

“I haven’t always wanted to focus on refugees, but I’ve always been humanitarian-minded and conscious of the inequities in our world and our country,” Ott said. “I came to Pitt knowing that I wanted to study chemistry and thinking that I might become a chemist because I found it fascinating.”

In her second year at Pitt, she volunteered with a refugee family in Pittsburgh. That summer, she worked as a volunteer at Kala Refugee Camp in Zambia, which serves 20,000 Congolese refugees. Ott said that the refugees have been warehoused or stuck in the camp for around ten years.

“After collaborating with my refugee friends in both places, I became passionate about refugee issues,” she said.

Ott continues to mentor and tutor Somali, Burundian and Senegalese refugee families. She has also been studying Swahili and Arabic, in addition to French.

She said she hopes that regardless of where she ends up — at a nonprofit, in the federal government or at the U.N. — she wants to advocate for refugee policy and oversee its implementation.

“I love seeing the difference you can make in one person’s life through collaboration and empowerment,” Ott said.

Ott was also a 2008 Truman Scholarship winner, a 2008 Phi Beta Kappa junior scholarship winner and a 2006 Averill Scholarship winner. Pitt Magazine named her among the Phenomenal Pitt Women, an award given to 12 women.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said in a news release that Ott’s “selection as a Rhodes Scholar is further testament to her distinguished record of academic excellence, overall high achievement, and wide-ranging humanitarian commitment.”

The Rhodes Trust, the organization which sponsors the awards, interviewed 216 students from 97 American colleges and universities and chose 32 students for its award. The trust also chooses winners from other countries, including Australia, Bermuda, India, Jamaica, Kenya and Malawi.

The awards are given in honor of Cecil Rhodes, a man born in Britain in 1853 who worked as a politician in Africa. The value of the scholarships depends upon which subjects the recipients choose to study, which degrees they pursue and which college they choose to attend within the University of Oxford.

Winners are chosen on attributes including academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, according to a news release.