What do you call a Colts Neck native who’ll earn a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and simultaneously a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania with a perfect grade-point average in both? You’d call him a Rhodes scholar. Chris D’Urso is one of three selected from New Jersey who’ll start postgraduate studies at Oxford University in England next fall. He sat down with Senior Correspondent David Cruz.
Cruz: So, you are one of three Rhodes scholars from New Jersey this year. Do you all know each other? Do you all hang out, tell Rhodes scholar jokes?
D’Urso: I’ve actually met one of them so far who I interviewed with, Jordan, because they do the interviews based off of, by region. But, we’ve connected through social media and we’ll be keeping in touch and obviously spending the next few years together, looking forward to getting to know everyone more.
Cruz: So, does someone aspire to Rhodes scholarly-ness? Did you say to your parents, “Mom, I want to be a Rhodes scholar.”
D’Urso: No. It’s not really something I’d really thought of before last year. I had it recommended to me by Penn’s office that handles these types of fellowships and scholarships, and then I decided to look into it more and then applied for them. But I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Oh, I want to grow up and be a Rhodes scholar.”
Cruz: So, the Rhodes scholarship has this kind of social responsibility aspect. Talk about that a little bit.
D’Urso: Yes. One of the missions of the Rhodes scholarship is to equip people to fight the world’s fight, and each one of us may define that slightly differently. But, that’s one of the things that really attracted me most to the scholarship. It’s because ever since I was really young, my parents taught me how one person can make a difference, and that has been my guiding passion throughout life in wanting to pursue a career in public service.
Cruz: So, you are another Rhodes scholar who sees himself running for office or something someday.
D’Urso: Yes. I see my initial career path starting off as a federal prosecutor where I can take on some of the worst crimes, and then move on into a career in policy world as an elected official because, you know, the enforcement, education parts are important, but you also need to be supported by strong laws that are really going to help people in need.
Cruz: So, law school then is next for you?
D’Urso: Yes. After Oxford, I’ll be going directly into law school, or that’s at least the plan.
Cruz: You’ve also done some work with Congressman Chris Smith, yes? Tell me about that.
D’Urso: Yes. So I had interned with Congressman Smith, and I also separately worked with him on the issue of country of origin labeling, which is basically if you buy a food product it should say this is a product of the U.S., a product of China. But the problem is there are these huge loopholes in the laws so that a large percentage of foods coming into the U.S. actually don’t have labeling. So I presented this research to Congressman Smith. I started doing the research back in 2012, I met with him in 2013 and then he called for a congressional hearing before the Congressional Executive Commission on China, where I testified back in 2014 with the USDA and the FDA on my research and recommendations on how we can really strengthen the laws because they undermine consumer rights if people don’t know where their food’s coming from.
Cruz: You are a serious guy. What do you do for fun? Do you have a large group of friends or is it just the smartest kids in Colts Neck?
D’Urso: No, I definitely wouldn’t say it’s all the smartest kids, but I do have a core close-knit group of friends. I like spending time with them, especially up at school, exploring more about Philly. I’m a big history buff, so Philly is the perfect city to explore or go down by the Independence Hall area.
Cruz: Your parents drove you here. They are in fact here in the studio, so I guess you’re going to have to be diplomatic with this, but who are your influences, let’s say aside from your parents. Who inspires you? But you can say that your parents inspired you. They’re number one.
D’Urso: I would definitely say they are number one. They have always been with me from the beginning. I can’t even imagine how much that they’ve sacrificed to help me accomplish my goals, like even just driving me here, driving me to everything, before I got a license when I was little doing internships. I would say one politician who really inspires me would be former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. I’ve known her since I was 11 years old because I met her actually back when she was running to be Monmouth County sheriff, as a Monmouth County resident. I think the thing that really inspires me the most about her is how committed she is to helping people. I saw behind the scenes, I had an opportunity to work for her the summer after freshman year, how she was really committed to quickly and personally solving people’s issues. And also she’s really remained very humble and true to her roots.
Cruz: Now did you find an opportunity to further your work in consumer affairs through the Rhodes scholarship, or were you already headed that way and the Rhodes scholarship kind of helped you with that?
D’Urso: I would say that I was already headed that way and I think the Rhodes definitely helped with that. As I mentioned, I’ve been an investigative aid and outreach coordinator for the Monmouth County Department of Consumer Affairs, so investigating and mediating consumer complaints, many of them after Superstorm Sandy. And then at Penn, I had the opportunity to create this organization called Penn CASE where we go out in the West Philly community to help educate people. Penn CASE stands for Penn Consumer Assistance Support and Education because I was shocked to learn that, even though Philadelphia is the poorest major city in the U.S., there was no proactive consumer education program there. So I created this group in the spring of my freshman year, where so far we’ve reached about 1,970 Philadelphia residents with presentations, workshops and the like. And now through the Rhodes, I’m planning to apply and study for a doctorate there where I would do three years of research looking at the internationalization of fraud and how countries can work together to better solve those problems.
Cruz: New Jersey is a blue state, but when we were talking before you said you’re kind of center-right.
Cruz: So how are you going to run for office in New Jersey? What’s your plan?
D’Urso: Well, I think definitely starting at the local level is essentially key. And one of the biggest things that I’ve found especially in politics is the importance of bringing people together and being willing to talk to someone even if you don’t fully agree with their perspective. And I think that is the type of approach that I want to take, to be someone who’s willing to reach across the aisle and listen to the other side and work together because that’s something I feel is missing in politics today. And that’s how you really solve problems to help people, because that’s what you’re doing, you want to help people. You don’t want to do it to hear yourself talk or just be the politician.
Cruz: So, you’re of the opinion that all change begins locally.
D’Urso: Yes and I’ve seen that first hand in my personal experiences because those are the people who, when you’re closest to the ground, you know the issues that are being faced and you can work to solve those because you just don’t come up from saying something from up high, you want to help the people who are really experiencing these problems and that may not necessarily occur if you’re not following it from the local perspective.
Cruz: Chris D’Urso, another impressive New Jersey Rhodes scholar, very nice to meet you and continued good luck.