Illinois Math and Science Academy graduate Rhiana Gunn-Wright will be heading to the University of Oxford next fall thanks to a Rhodes scholarship she secured by wowing professors with her personal statement, research interests in poverty and welfare policy, and one other trait she's had since high school.
Gunn-Wright, 23, said she was voted "easiest to talk to" during her years at IMSA in Aurora, and her approachable nature may have helped impress the layers of selection committees who chose her to be among 32 Rhodes scholars named Nov. 17.
Gunn-Wright said she didn't originally want to pursue a master's degree when she graduated from Yale University in 2011. She got a research fellowship at the Institute for Women's Policy Research but discovered she would need an even higher level of education to continue studying policies related to poverty and its complex causes.
"I'm from Englewood in Chicago originally," said Gunn-Wright, whose family now lives in Oak Lawn. "I saw firsthand the way poverty really affects and disrupts people's lives."
In college, she double-majored in African-American studies and women's gender and sexuality studies, interests she began developing her junior and senior years at IMSA, even with the school's focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
"They give you so much space to question and research the things that you're interested in," Gunn Wright said about the teachers at IMSA, a publicly funded residential high school for gifted students. "There's such a big emphasis on using the things you're interested in to make a positive change in the world."
IMSA President Glenn "Max" McGee said he remembers Gunn-Wright mainly by the commencement speech she gave in 2007.
"I remember Rhiana speaking and just being inspired and awed by her presence and her words," McGee said.
When the school heard Gunn-Wright was named a Rhodes scholar, McGee said he recalled the beginning of her speech when she called the Class of 2007 the "Peace out generation."
"She said, 'You will change our wicked world into someplace you will want to wake up every morning. You will make our burdened generation into one of awe, and I will be proud to say I knew you," McGee said, quoting from Gunn-Wright's speech.
Gunn-Wright will use the prestigious scholarship, which has been given to American men and women since 1904, to pursue a master's of philosophy in comparative social policy at Oxford in England. Welfare systems in England and America likely will be her research focus.
"I'm really interested in seeing how those two systems are structured to deal with poverty and seeing how they speak to one another," Gunn-Wright said.
Five years after graduating from IMSA, Gunn-Wright said the education she received there "definitely taught me a different way to think."
She is the third IMSA graduate to become a Rhodes scholar, joining fellow alumni who graduated in 1989 and 1991.
"You can still sense her inner strength and commitment to make a difference in the larger world," McGee said. With the Rhodes scholarship, "she will truly advance the human condition."