Western's Nate Jo named a Rhodes Scholarship finalist

WWU student Nate Jo never saw himself as a potential Rhodes Scholar. In fact, a year ago, he didn’t know what the Rhodes Scholarship was.

First awarded in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international scholarship program, allowing students from around the world to study at the University of Oxford and covering their costs plus a stipend for two to three years of post-graduate study at the university. The scholarship is awarded to 102 students each year, with 32 spots allotted to students from America.

It’s also by far the most difficult fellowship to get, says WWU Fellowship Office Advisor Tom Moore, noting that only 3 percent of applicants become finalists and 1 percent are winners. Western’s most recent finalist was more than six years ago.

But Jo didn’t know that when his sister, Jenny Rallens Jo, suggested the idea as an option for graduate school.

“He knew he wanted to go to grad school in a very challenging and stimulating environment, but finding the funding for it would be difficult. So, I suggested Rhodes,” says Rallens Jo, a PhD candidate who teaches in the Classics department at Oxford. “The amazing thing about Nate is that he just already is a lot of what Rhodes seems to be looking for just because of who he is. He already has done the volunteering, the leadership, the outreach, not because he was thinking about adding the necessary lines to his CV, but because he cares so much about people who are hurting and justice and goodness and making the world a better place.”

Though he was initially skeptical, his sister’s confidence in him inspired him to give it a shot.

From there, Jo approached it with the same vigor as his studies at Western, where he is majoring in philosophy, political science and economics, while serving as student trustee on the Board of Trustees and as captain of the swim team. Jo has held several positions with Associated Students, was Vice President of Hall Representation in University Residences, on the board of the LGBTQ+ Students of Color Club and also worked as a legislative intern for Speaker Laurie Jinkins in the Washington State House of Representatives during the 2021 session. 

He’s no stranger to hard work, and that was a good thing considering the rigorous process of applying for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“It was by far the most intense application I’ve ever done,” he says, including eight letters of recommendation and one letter of endorsement from WWU President Sabah Randhawa. “I had incredible letters of recommendation from professors. So many people jumped on board to help prepare me for the interview. They say it takes a village to submit a Rhodes application, and I found that to be very true.”

One of those letters of recommendation came from Jo’s Economics Instructor Susan Burke, who also helped prepare him for his interview. Supporting Nate for the Rhodes Scholarship was an easy decision for her because she’s seen the intelligence, commitment to excellence and compassion that he brings to his work.

“Nate has the intellect to perform at a high level but his commitment to excellence is demonstrated more in his diligence, perseverance, attention to detail, and his active listening skills,” Burke says. “Nate brings good humor and compassion to his efforts.”    

Despite knowing the work he put into it, he was still surprised when he found out he was among 14 finalists for the district, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Competition for the scholarship is fierce, and he knew he was up against Ivy League students from Harvard and Stanford.

“I was very shocked when I opened my email one morning, not expecting anything, and saw that I was a finalist,” he says. “It was really unreal, and it took a couple days for it to feel anywhere near real. It was hard to accept that I could get in to Oxford.”

While he wasn’t selected as one of the final two students from the district to become a Rhodes Scholar and attend Oxford, the process of becoming a finalist has already changed the trajectory of his life. For one thing, Rhodes Scholarship finalists can generally gain admission to Oxford, opening a world a possibilities. While he hasn’t applied there yet, he has applied and been accepted to the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Master in Science in Philosophy and Public Policy program following his graduation from Western in spring 2022. He has also applied for a Fulbright grant to cover the costs of attending LSE and plans to take what he has learned to apply for the next year’s Rhodes Scholarship to complete the Master in Philosophy in Evidenced-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation or Bachelor in Philosophy with focuses on housing policy and political philosophy.

“I think the most important personal takeaway is just a sense of what I’ve accomplished at Western. I sort of have always viewed myself as average at best.,” he says. “It was sort of a shock to change my whole perception of who I am and what I’m capable of.”

What does the sister who started it all think of Jo making it as a finalist and starting an exciting path toward studying in England?

“I encouraged Nate to apply because he needs to find his people, learn to see himself as he actually is, and realize that the world needs him, and realize that he is not alone in his intellectual curiosity, deep-hearted kindness, and passion and ability,” she says. “When I heard he was a finalist I was happy, but not in the least surprised — it’s pretty clear that he is already at this level.” 


Nate Jo looks out on University of Oxford as he leans on a cement railing.
Nate Jo looks out on University of Oxford as he leans on a cement railing.