New Jersey boasts three rock star students selected as Rhodes scholars in the class of 2018. We wondered what it takes to win one of the most prestigious scholarships for young leaders in the world so we asked one of the winners, Newark native Jordan Thomas, to sit down with Senior Correspondent David Cruz.
Cruz: 21-year-old Jordan Thomas is a senior at Princeton University and a historic figure in the city of Newark. As far as we can tell, the only, maybe one other Newarker who’s been named a Rhodes scholar. First of all, props on the hair because you got it going on. So tell me what is a Rhodes scholar?
Thomas: Essentially a Rhodes scholar is an individual who receives a fully-paid scholarship to travel to the United Kingdom to study at the University of Oxford. And you have your choice to study for a second bachelor’s degree, you can study for one or two master’s degree or even study for a doctoral degree. That’s what it is in essence, but beyond that it’s really a network of individuals who are frustrated with the current state of affairs in the world and who are interested in what the scholarship calls “fighting the world’s fight.” And you can do that through a number of ways. That can be through public office, that could be through academia, however you sort of set your goals, but individually you have this sort of frustration with the current circumstances in the world and you’re invested in making a difference.
Cruz: So in your process with, I assume there’s an application process, interview process and so on, and so you articulated that in this interview, yeah?
Thomas: Yes, and for me that’s always been sort of this devotion to public service. So I am interested in running for public office, but like I said, I mean if you talked to, there were 97 individuals across the world, 32 in the United States this year, they have just such different aspirations. It really is this wide network of individuals with different sets of goals and accomplishments. For me that takes one form, but it really is just a very diverse crop of individuals.
Cruz: Only three people in the state of New Jersey named to the 2018 class.
Cruz: So what are you studying at Princeton?
Thomas: I’m studying public and international affairs with a focus on domestic policy and even more concentrated on poverty, inequality and social mobility.
Cruz: And a double minor, is that possible?
Thomas: Yes. You can even do more than that, but the way that I’ve invested my time is in Portuguese language and culture and in African-American studies.
Cruz: You went to University High, and when you’re at University High are you thinking, “this is where I’m going?” Did you think, “I want to be a Rhodes scholar”?
Thomas: No, I mean it’s nothing that really came to mind. I think it’s more so I knew what my mission was and what my passion was. So I knew that I wanted to really have a tangible impact on people’s lives and I really wanted to make a difference in this world, but I didn’t exactly know how or what sort of doors that would lead me down. And it wasn’t until I got to college and I was doing very well that people really started encouraging me and they said, you really need to think about pursuing a Rhodes scholarship or even a Marshall scholarship. That’s when I started to look more into it and I saw that, wow, the mission of the Rhodes scholarship is really just so in line with what I’ve sort of wanted to do in my life, and that is, like I said, just fighting the world’s fight and really having a difference, or making a difference in this world. So it was more like I knew what I wanted to do and I had a mission and the Rhodes scholarship just fit that mission so well.
Cruz: So politics, government, that kind of thing is where you want to fight this fight?
Cruz: You still think, you’re a young man so you have a certain amount of naiveté to you, but you have faith in the electoral process, yeah? It hasn’t been beaten out of you yet, seeing what happens in the world?
Thomas: No, and I think that’s one of the more unfortunate things about the current state of politics today and just sort of the frustration with the current administration, I think, is that a lot of people have been discouraged by it and a lot of people have sort of loss their faith in the process, but I don’t look at it that way. I’m almost inspired by it, and I think that it takes a future generation of leaders, people who are frustrated with the current administration and just the current state of politics to really identify what it is that frustrates them about it and to set their sights on changing it. I almost view that my generation of future leaders are the people who are really going to change what it is that they think need to be changed, right? So I’m inspired by it. I haven’t lost faith by it at all.
Cruz: Who do you look at in terms of politicians who are role models for you?
Thomas: Well, I grew up in the Obama era so one, right away, is Barack Obama. But also I look at Sen. Cory Booker. He’s taken a very similar track to the one that I aspire to.
Cruz: Including being a Rhodes scholar.
Thomas: Including being a Rhodes scholar. He started over a Stanford, went over and studied as a Rhodes scholar and then came back and went to Yale Law School. That’s one thing that I want to do is ultimately I want to go to law school, and then I want to come back and I want to serve my city of Newark, which is also what he did.
Cruz: Have you ever met Cory Booker?
Thomas: I have, actually. He’s a very charismatic individual.
Cruz: Right. Who’s your biggest personal influences?
Thomas: I feel like it’s almost a cliche answer, but really it’s my parents. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their influence and without their guidance. They’ve been with me every step of the way, whether that’s, I served as student representative on the Newark Public School’s Board of Education, they were there at every meeting. They were driving me to the meetings, driving me home and just anything else that I need, I know that they’re just a phone call away. So really the impact that they’ve had on me is enormous.
Cruz: You hear about Newark schools and Newark kids, students, not always in the most positive light. Did you ever find it hard to stay on the straight and narrow?
Thomas: I think that I’ve been grounded by a really close and strong network of people who have sort of kept my sights on my ultimate goal. So I think about my parents, I think about the friends that I’ve been very fortunate in making in the school system, people who were invested in the books but knew how to have fun, they kept me grounded. And also just the role models that I’ve met along the way, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my largest role models in high school was Mr. Hood. He was my AP language teacher my junior year and then sort of served as my mentor senior year and still to this day. People like that really kept me grounded and sort of kept my sights on what I wanted to do down the line.