Algonquin late bloomer now a Rhodes Scholar
When English major Alexis Brown realized there was no place where she could submit her undergraduate essays for publication, she decided there was only one solution -- create one from scratch.
The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism, the nation's first journal aimed at giving undergraduate students of literature a platform to showcase their essays, published its first yearly issue in May 2011.
That propelled the 21-year-old Algonquin native, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be named a Rhodes Scholar for 2012 -- one of just 32 outstanding students from all over the nation. The scholars were selected from a pool of 830 candidates nominated by their colleges and universities, and each gets the chance to purse a degree or degrees from Oxford University in England.
"It started because I was looking for some place where I could publish work I was doing for my undergrad classes. There is no place for undergrads across the country to publish their own work," Alexis explained. "It's kind of disheartening when you spend hours and hours on a paper, and you turn it in and one person reads it, and you never go back to it again -- and no one else reads it."
Alexis used a $3,000 leadership trust award she earned at the end of her sophomore year to work on the journal's creation throughout her junior year. She contacted literary journals, researched printing costs and assembled an editorial board composed of fellow students.
Two-hundred copies were printed of the free but highly selective journal, which featured nine essays selected from more than 160 entries from students across the country.
The journal truly mirrors professional, scholarly journals, said Cyrena Pondrom, who has taught English and comparative literature since the 1960s at UW-Madison. More than 15 peer reviewers carefully examine all the entries, all of which are cross-evaluated, and come to a consensus as an editorial board.
"Alexis is a person of great intelligence. More than that, she shows really remarkable leadership, two qualities that don't always go hand-in-hand. She was an enormous amount of drive, and she uses her ability to develop programs that are to the benefit of others," Pondrom said. "Those are the qualities that mark our future leadership in this country."
UW-Madison senior Patrick Johnson, who serves as the journal's managing editor, said he's not just impressed that Alexis created it, but that she made it a viable, long-term endeavor.
"Between her school work, work, and the journal, I can't believe that (Alexis) finds time to do anything. I think she wrote the grant proposal for the magazine during the middle of midterms," Johnson said. "During my time with her, I've found that when she takes up a project, she finishes it no matter what."
Alexis tutors students as writing fellow for the university and holds internships at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Last summer, she was a teaching assistant for the AmeriCorps Schools of Hope project in Madison.
Lynn Brown says her daughter's extraordinary achievement would have been hard to predict a few years ago, when she was an unremarkable student at Jacobs High School until senior year.
Alexis said she graduated with a "not very impressive" 3.6 GPA. She now carries a 3.98 GPA and expects to graduate with honors in English and history.
"She came out of nowhere," Lynn Brown said. "It's astonishing to me that she sought out multiple jobs, internships. I am extremely proud of her."
Alexis was always a voracious reader, participating in kids' book clubs and serving on the Algonquin teen library board, she said.
Her love for English was borne out of boredom, Alexis says.
Growing up, she and her brothers -- Gavin, now 23, and Andrew, now 15 and a sophomore at Jacobs -- weren't allowed to watch TV, so Alexis immersed herself in the great works of literature owned by her mom, a graduate of the University of Chicago's English program. Alexis' father, Russ, is a software engineer.
Alexis particularly loves the modernist literature of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. "English, literature, they always made sense to me in a way that nothing else does," she said.
Naturally, English always came easy, but Alexis concedes she didn't put her all into high school.
"I realized that I could have done more in high school and if I wanted to be competitive for any graduate program, I would have to do more," said Alexis, who at one point considered law school.
Getting the Rhodes scholarship completely stunned her. Last year she won a $7,500 scholarship from the University of Wisconsin's honors program. That allowed her to do a weeklong research for her senior thesis at the University of Reading, also in England.
"I couldn't believe it, it still seems kind of absurd," she said of being named a Rhodes scholar. "I guess you should never think that something isn't possible for you just because it seems it's out of reach -- it's not."
Alexis plans to stay at Oxford for two to three years, depending on whether she pursues a Ph.D. in philosophy, or two master's degrees, one of them in post-1900 literature.
As for her hobbies, Alexis has been into ice skating since she was 5 years old. She taught group lessons and choreographed group numbers for the annual winter show at Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake. Within the testing system of U.S. Figure Skating, Alexis passed the senior test for moves, the highest of eight levels; and the novice level for freestyle, the fifth of eight levels. She also got through about half of the dances for the pre-gold level, her mother said.
"She was a very serious skater, very focused. Always on time, very organized, very dependable," said Crystal Ice House skating director Kim Johnson. "She's one of those people who is just focused in everything."
Although Alexis is determined to go far in life, she says she is by no means always a model of efficiency. "I sometimes fly by the seat of my pants," she said. "But when it comes down to the wire, I do what I have to do -- and I work hard."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, send a note with name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.
Alexis BrownAge: 21
Who inspires you? My professor, Cyrena Pondrom. She entered the professorial profession when there were next to no women, and she made a name for herself despite the difficulties she encountered. To me, that kind of tenacity is inspiring.
What book are you reading? "Unclaimed Experience," by Cathy Caruth
What's on your iPod? The Magnetic Fields, Billie Holiday.
The three words that best describe you? Fortunate. Curious. Introspective.