UVic Torch -- Spring 2004
Spring 2004,
Volume 26, Number 1

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Oxford skyline: Kate Ballem and David Claus are the first of five Rhodes Scholarship winners from UVic in four years. In the background are the two Towers of All Soul's College (left), the spire of University Church St. Mary's, and the dome of Radcliffe Camera (Bodleian Library).
Photography by PERRY HASTINGS

UVic's Rhodes Scholars find their way in the city of dreaming spires.

STUDENTS DON'T NEED ALARM CLOCKS WHEN THEY FIRST ARRIVE IN OXFORD. The melodic discord of cathedral and tower bells will wake them. The chimes call to one another through the early mist. Their pealing voices echo through cobblestone streets and mingle with the international accents of students in the city of dreaming spires.

Among them are Rhodes Scholars Kate Ballem, BSc ’01, and David Claus, BEng ’01. They are part of a group of five “Rhodies” from UVic in the past four years who have claimed education’s single most prestigious scholarship. It’s worth more than $100,000 for three years of graduate studies. Winners demonstrate combined excellence in academics, athleticism and community involvement. Following Ballem and Claus to Oxford are Emily Poupart, MA ’03, who won the 2003 prize for her home province of Quebec, and two current students: Jorga Zabojova (BC) and JanaLee Cherneski (Manitoba and Prairie region), who will begin at Oxford in the fall.

Ballem had only vaguely heard of the award before she applied. “It was serendipity. I wanted to go to grad school in Vancouver, but my mom said I’d be stupid not to apply.”

Rhodes applicants, as much as anything, have to be able to think on their feet. Short-listed candidates endure a gruelling, two-day interview process in Vancouver for the one Rhodies Scholarship awarded to a BC student each year. On the first evening, they are book-ended between scholarship judges at a group dinner. The next day, they are grilled in individual interview sessions.

Claus remembers the questions were challenging and unpredictable. When asked about the political situation in Uganda, where he’d done an undergraduate co-op term, Claus praised the Ugandan president’s political leadership. “Then they said, ‘Well, you realize all this could be applied to Cuba’s Fidel Castro,’” says Claus. “And I thought, oh great, now they think I’m a communist.” Claus remembers struggling for a response. “It was disconcerting that I’d backed myself into a corner.”

Ballem was asked for her position on the legalization of marijuana. She carefully worded a neutral response. “It was tricky. I said, ‘Well, I’m not a user myself, but I have no problems with it and studies show it’s no worse than alcohol or tobacco.’”

Ballem says she had no idea she’d win. “I thought the interview went horribly,” she says. “I felt like I was rambling the whole time.” She recalls getting the phone call later that day. “Well, Kate,” said the BC committee secretary, “you’re a Rhodes Scholar.”

“What, I won?” she blurted out. Ballem laughs at the memory. “Everyone heard what I said and started yelling and screaming in the living room. The secretary said he’d never heard anyone’s family go quite so nuts.”

Part of the reason for UVic’s recent success in the Rhodes competition is Michael Prince, acting dean of Human and Social Development. A judge on the BC Rhodes committee since 1997, he was surprised during his first year when not a single application came from a UVic student. “It was puzzling. I knew in my heart that we had suitable applicants.”

A campus committee now finds eligible students, reviews applications and forwards the best, along with a letter of recommendation from President David Turpin, to the provincial competition. “Some universities forward every application,” says Prince. “UVic’s screening process guarantees that it is sending the crème de la crème.”

Claus, 26, loves Oxford and the way the gardens are hidden from the streets. “I don’t live right in the city centre, so when I come into town, I look around me and think, ‘Wow, I live here.’” He belongs to New College, which, contrary to its name, is one of the oldest colleges in the city. “The downtown is very cramped. All you see are walls and three- or four- storey limestone buildings. But New College gardens are amazing. They’re a bit wild, and there’s always something in bloom.”

Claus is midway through doctoral research in robotics. His work focuses on computer vision for surveying construction sites with video cameras. The outdoorsman says his first responsibility is to do well in his studies, but volunteering has always been a part of his life. In Oxford he’s managing sound equipment for a band at a local church and helping construct houses with Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a chance to get out and swing a hammer, something I don’t get to do much as an engineer anymore.”

Ballem is nearing the completion of a three-year doctoral research degree in early language learning psychology. She says the best part of the Rhodes program is its international flavour. The 24-year-old has established a global network of friends and travelled to India, Ecuador, Peru, Florida, Washington, DC and continental Europe.

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