Scandalis Selected As Rhodes Scholar Finalist|
Dec. 23, 2016
By Katie Ryan, USC Assistant Sports Information Director
Her email "pinged". She opened it in the USC women's tennis team room surrounded by her former teammates. Upon reading the good news, she began to jump up and down overwhelmed with excitement. Former Trojan and ITA All-American Zoë Scandalis had just received confirmation that she was selected as a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
After a long and strenuous process, Scandalis was going to have the opportunity to share with a group of accomplished panelists how she wanted to change the world.
"I'm just compelled to help girls especially because I've been empowered through school here at USC and through tennis, and by my family as well," said Scandalis. "As I've gotten older, I've gotten more and more convicted to help as much as I can. I really want to make an impact in girls' education in developing countries."
Scandalis' passion for youth stemmed from her involvement with USC's community outreach program within the athletic department.
"My freshman year, we had the community bowl where we went to a local school with all of the student-athletes," she said. "We were doing little projects to help the school, and I noticed how the little kids just looked at us in awe. They lit up and were so excited that we were coming. That community bowl really made me see that I could have an impact."
In May of 2016, Scandalis, along with 2,500 American students, began the application process to become a Rhodes Scholar. Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust describes the scholarship as "the oldest and best known award for international study, and arguably the most famous academic award available to American college graduates." Through the bestowment of this scholarship, winners have the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford in England to further their education in hopes of making an important and positive impact throughout the world.
The application process begins with being endorsed by ones' university. In order to receive an endorsement, Scandalis was required to write a personal statement and present it to a panel of USC faculty.
"I got endorsed, but they ripped me apart," Scandalis said. "We had a mock interview, and I had no idea what I was getting into. You really have to know what you're talking about. I think I said something about the UN, and there was an international relations professor in there and she looked at me like, `Do you have any idea what you're doing right now?'"
Though she received critiques from the panel, Scandalis took it in stride.
"It was beautiful," she said. "I was so grateful of the way that she challenged me because she really pushed me into the direction that I should've been in the first place which is with girls' education. That's where I want to be. I originally approached it as `I just want to help the world', and it was very broad."
After receiving USC's endorsement she decided to completely rewrite her personal statement to reflect her specific goals and passions.
"I spent so much time researching scholars and current projects going on whether it be the Batonga Foundation, the Malala Fund, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates and their foundation, and the Clinton Foundation also has a data collection project. I was researching what current work was going on with girls' education and getting in contact with Oxford professors. It was a long process."
Two weeks later, Scandalis found out she was selected as one of fourteen finalists in her district.
"I knew that I was going to be introduced to some of the brightest kids in the country," she said. "It was insane. To even be recognized in that group was amazing."
The night before the final interview, Scandalis and the thirteen other finalists were invited to a cocktail reception with the panelists.
"Amidst the mingling, you're being judged on your social skills, how you present yourself and how articulate you are," she said. "Interacting with the other finalists was incredible, and when they told me what they were studying and what they were interested in, it was profound. The vocabulary words they used were insane. I was totally inspired to learn more about global issues and know more about not only my own field, but science and global health and technology and politics."
This cocktail party was not filled with small talk and pleasantries. The panelists' interactions with the finalists would help them determine who to grant the scholarships to.
"The tension in the room was on another planet," said Scandalis. "Everyone is so aware of exactly how they are behaving, and everyone is nervous. You're trying to sell yourself without being too annoying. You need to be competitive with the other candidates, but you also want to learn what they are interested in."
"The panelists would come up to us in little groups and ask us what we thought about specific issues. You're being judged against your peers as to how you answer. It was really intense. They were using vocabulary words I'd never heard of and I was trying to piece together everything going on and not be intimidated."
The night before the interview, Scandalis did not sleep at all. The combination of nerves and excitement were overwhelming. The one person that helped to assuage her tension was USC assistant head coach, West Nott.
"My coach, West Nott, is the most phenomenally supportive person," she said. "He was there from start to finish. He made me food even though I wasn't hungry. He made sure I was very comfortable. He would interview me with questions the weeks leading up to it. He would test me on current events. We would read the Wall Street Journal. He just went above and beyond. West is unbelievable. He was with me throughout the whole process. That's what's amazing about these coaches. Most tennis coaches want you to play well for the team and win during your four years. But here I am, graduated and they just want to support my life.
USC head women's tennis coach Richard Gallien is extremely proud of Scandalis' success beyond the walls of Marks Tennis Stadium.
"Zoë is not only one of the most special kids that I have ever coached, but also that I've ever been around," Gallien said. "She's achieved great success while maintaining a quiet and humble demeanor. Zoë is not at all an egotistical person, but she demonstrates enormous grace and dignity. Every coach at USC is proud of what their athletes do in competition, and clearly she was amazing for us, but what she's done off the court is very inspirational for our current team. To say I'm proud of her is like telling my wife I love her, it just doesn't do it justice."
As her turn arrived for the interview, all of Scandalis' fears went away. All of her thoughts were focused on the girls she was going to help and educate with this scholarship. She compared the preparation involved to that of a tennis match.
"Getting ready for that interview was like playing one of the biggest matches of my life," said Scandalis. "The stakes were so high. For all of the candidates, there's a part of us that would like to be called a Rhodes Scholar just because individually it's an amazing honor, but the part of me that spoke stronger was the part of me that said, `If I get this scholarship, I can impact girls all over the world to a level that I never even dreamed of.' I walked in there thinking those thoughts, just like tennis. You can think if you're going to win or lose or how this match is going to turn out. You think of your strategy or how you will break down the opponent, or just get through this game, or just hold here."
Although she did not receive the Rhodes Scholarship, Scandalis is still motivated to continue to pursue her passion of bettering the education of young women around the world. She will rejoin the professional tennis circuit and hopes to integrate her philanthropic efforts with that of her athletic career.
"Whether it be with help from clothing sponsors, putting on an exhibition match or setting up different mentorship programs, we can all help," she said. "Myself and other professional tennis players can spread awareness, and it could be collaborative and community driven. We have a platform and a voice and need to use it to impact the world."