Arts & Sciences

Three Washington University scholars were Rhodes finalists

Two Washington University in St. Louis students and a recent alumnus were finalists for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. 

They are: 

  • Christopher Taylor Brown, 23,  a graduate student studying domestic social and economic development at the Brown School;
  • Summer McKenna, 21, a senior majoring in modern Middle Eastern studies and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology in Arts & Sciences; and 
  • Harsh Moolani, 22, a 2019 graduate who studied neuroscience in Arts & Sciences. 

“We are incredibly proud of our finalists, each one an accomplished leader in their respective fields,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said. “Summer, Harsh and Taylor are pursuing different goals, but they share a common belief: empathy and understanding lead to impact.”

Brown, McKenna and Moolani were among an elite group of scholars from across the globe competing for the scholarship, which provides winners an opportunity to earn an advanced degree at Oxford University. On Nov. 21, the Rhodes Trust selected 32 American scholars to join the program. Washington University has had 29 Rhodes Scholars since the program began in 1902.

‘Years of service’

Taylor Brown is an advocate for children.

“I envision a world where our children’s welfare is our main priority and where our social welfare systems prevent vulnerability, not merely treat the symptoms,” he wrote in his scholarship application.

“This scholarship would allow me to take the next steps in continuing my fight for children. I’ve built this vision through years of service.”

Taylor advises the assistant secretary of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families — which administers most of the social services in the country, including all federal policy related to child welfare — on policy and politics. Previously, he served as an ordained minister at a homeless shelter for three years while earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in Arkansas.

“I dreamed of becoming a clinician specializing in childhood trauma therapy,” he said.

After he worked for two weeks as a caseworker, the director of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services promoted Brown to serve as a legislative aide, setting him on the path of social policy and politics. He then moved to working on children’s policy issues in the governor’s office.

After moving to St. Louis to begin the Master of Social Work program at the Brown School, Brown has served as legislative aide in the Missouri Legislature; continued his ministry by fighting for racial equity in the city; and served as director of policy and analysis for Ella Jones, the first African American and female mayor of Ferguson, Mo.

“These positions have allowed me to create innovative solutions to social issues,” he said. “Most importantly, however, these experiences have elucidated critical gaps in advancing children’s welfare in the face of a multitude of impending global challenges. I’ve already begun to fill those gaps, but this scholarship is the next step.”

When you’re working with vulnerable people, they become the center of your world, Brown said.

“We forget that these people exist amid a myriad of interconnected systems,” he said. “I led an international child welfare summit between the United States and England, which was so impactful that our countries requested another. I successfully led the Global Children in Care Summit, where government and nonprofit leaders from 30 other countries joined the assistant secretary of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services to learn about comparative child-welfare policy by listening to the lived experiences of nine young people who had been in care in various countries around the world.”

“I envision a formal coalition of countries who are so committed to the welfare of their children that they set aside their differences to better serve their most vulnerable,” he said.

“Taylor is precisely the kind of person who is likely to make a positive and profound change in our world,” said Brett Drake, professor at the Brown School. “His combination of intellect, superior interpersonal skills and his genuine and deep commitment to transformative change make him uniquely well suited to take full advantage of any opportunities he is offered.”

“The world needs more people like Taylor Brown,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said. “He is a champion for children all over the world and is using the knowledge gained at the Brown School to help ensure lasting, positive change for young people everywhere.”

Taylor plans to earn a PhD in social policy.

“Education isn’t born of inertia. It’s a tool and a passion,” Brown said. “I was the first in my family to graduate from a four-year college, and I used that knowledge to escape generational poverty and abuse in the rural South, ultimately to help kids who come from homes like mine.”

‘Nuanced care,  big-picture thinking’

Summer McKenna, 21, is committed to ending decades of distrust and hostility between America and the Middle East through cultural competency and conflict mediation. 

“My mission is to neutralize our military’s greatest enemy: a glaring lack of cultural, linguistic and historical competency,” McKenna wrote in her scholarship application. “I am not hungry for war. I am starving for education for our troops, diversification of our Armed Forces, acknowledging the humanness in another and making space for women as warriors of peacebuilding.”

McKenna serves as Cadet Battalion Commander, the top cadet leader of the Gateway Battalion, a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program composed of more than 100 cadets from nine local colleges and universities.

McKenna knew little about the Middle East before she arrived at Washington University to study philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and run track. But two key experiences set her on her current path. The first occurred in 2018, when she traveled to Morocco as part of Project Global Officer, a Department of Defense program to teach cadets critical languages. McKenna had never traveled outside of the United States, nor did she know Arabic. But she learned quickly from her Moroccan host sisters.

“We spent a lot of time talking about their views of America — both how they wanted to come here to study but also their anger about its role in the region,” McKenna recalled. “Hearing the perceptions of women my age made me realize that I have a role to play in how the world sees our country.”

The next moment occurred in the class “The U.S. War in Iraq” taught by Krister Knapp, teaching professor of history in Arts & Sciences. The topic was Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where U.S. soldiers tortured Iraqi detainees. 

“I was wearing my uniform that day and I felt incredible shame,” McKenna said. “But I also felt this determination to fix the broken trust that occurred in Iraq.” 

Jennifer R. Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said McKenna’s strength as an interdisciplinary scholar and sensitivity to interpersonal dynamics makes her a natural diplomat. 

“If I could design the person I would most want engaged in complex, fraught and exceedingly consequential decision-making within international affairs scenarios, particularly as regarding use of military force, it would be Summer,” Smith wrote in her recommendation. “She combines a nuanced care for individuals with big-picture strategic thinking and an ultimately pragmatic mindset.”

McKenna is currently an honors intern at the U.S. Department of Justice. Upon graduation, she will be commissioned as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.

On campus, McKenna also served as education chairwoman for Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and as member of the Catholic Leadership Development Cohort. 

But her proudest accomplishment is the creation of Interchange for Language & Mentorship, which pairs Syrian refugee high school students with Washington University undergraduates. Before the pandemic, McKenna and fellow tutors would accompany students to class to help them better understand English as well as American concepts like Thanksgiving.

“Helping in these minute moments makes a big difference in their education,” McKenna said. “Students who once felt excluded now feel included.” 

‘Always looking to innovate’

Harsh Moolani understood the devastating consequences of social isolation on older adults long before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. During his years as a hospice volunteer, Moolani befriended many older adults, each with a unique story to tell, each longing to be heard. 

“Deep human needs require the comfort and confidence of belonging,” Moolani wrote in his Rhodes application. “The psychosocial challenges like loneliness and social determinants of health for older adults are given little attention despite grave consequences. Seeing how research aligned with my in-person experience of witnessing a shortage of caregivers, inadequate reimbursement systems, poor aging policy and social perceptions as contributors to the challenges in elder care only compounded my fascination for the field and obsession with its intricacies.” 

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