Statue of Cecil Rhodes (Shutterstock)

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

A Rhodes by Any Other Name

My second favorite Christopher Nolan movie is his 2006 film about two rival magicians called The Prestige. 

That was the first time I learned that this word — “prestige” — had a more complicated history. It came to our language as French word meaning “a conjurer’s trick.” And before the 19th century, it would have been seen as derogatory, a reference to deceit or illusion. But then it took a turn to something like “dazzling” or “glamorous” before settling down to its present-day meaning that could be summarized as “widespread admiration based on the perception of quality.”

Unpacking the baggage bottled up in that word is part of our latest episode of Bootstraps, our year-long audio series about education and merit. But the episode starts with diamonds.

For this story, Jeff Young, the managing editor at EdSurge and host of the series, examines how the world’s most prestigious scholarship is wrestling with the legacy of its founder, Cecil Rhodes, the English imperialist and creator of the modern diamond industry.

It’s a fascinating episode that delves into the truth behind “diamonds in the rough,” how the first version of Rhodes’s will envisioned a scholarship with some key differences, and how colleges like the University of Maryland at Baltimore County are emulating the Ivies to prepare their students for the competition.

But I wanted to draw your attention to one specific source — LeAnn Adam, who runs an office at Oregon State University created to coach applicants for awards like the Rhodes Scholarship.

That office was once called “the Office of Prestigious Scholarships” — that’s what many universities call it. But as she explained to Jeff, that word didn’t hit the same note for everyone on campus.

“Prestigious scholarships certainly describes what it is we do. But I found that when I was talking to students, I felt the need to explain away the prestigious nature, because it’s such an off-putting word.”

The term may have created some barriers, she said, and began asking students to reflect on what it really meant to them.

“I have this thing up on my wall where we’ve sort of crowdsourced it with students. Things like esteem, stature, distinction, eminence, prominence — but some other ones that have a little bit of a negative connotation, like exclusive, elite, 1%, wealth, privilege. It’s that negative connotation that makes what we do feel exclusive in a way that we don’t want. So the goal has always been to take something that is inherently exclusive — because, after all, these scholarships are extremely competitive — and make our service as inclusive as possible.”

So they settled on a different name that Adam now feels great about: National and Global Scholarship Advising. And they’ve tried to create a culture that isn’t built solely on prestige.

“Our philosophy about this work is that it isn’t about winning scholarships. It’s about the professional development that students have the ability to gain and the transferable skills that they can build in the process of applying for these competitive scholarships…. The idea is that they’re getting something out of it, even if they don’t win the scholarship.”

Don’t miss the past episodes of Bootstraps wherever you listen to podcasts:

Finally, as Jeff mentions at the end of this episode, this Rhodes show concludes our six-episode Bootstraps series. We’d love to do another season, though, so if you have ideas or want to get in touch, please reach out. 

+ P.S. My favorite Christopher Nolan movie is Dunkirk.

— Scott Smallwood

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