End of Semester Wrap-Up: Bridges Over Jordan

On the eve of his return to Canaan, your biblical namesake, Jacob, wrestled with an angel until daybreak.  What force is your greatest challenge on your journey to “The Promised Land?”

You walk into the room and take a seat before a firing squad of six interviewers.  For an arduous half hour they grill you about current events, moral philosophy, arcane literary allusions, and hypothetical scenarios for saving the world.  If you ace this and win a Rhodes scholarship, all doors will be open to you for the rest of your career.  You will probably never face another interview where so much is on the line…

This past November I had the opportunity to participate in a special kind of mentoring project by serving on mock interview committees for students who had been invited to Rhodes scholarship interviews.  I dreamed up the nasty question that opens this essay for Jacob Tzegaebe, a Civil Engineering major who hopes to develop infrastructure projects in Nigeria, his father’s homeland.

One African American interpretation of the 40-year period that the Hebrews wandered in the desert is that they were not ready to take possession of   Canaan until most of the older people who had been born and raised under slavery in Egypt had died.  Only after the slave mentality had died out could the Hebrews meet the challenge of building a nation.  The morning of Jacob’s first mock interview, as I read through his credentials, I felt like I was standing on the mountain top looking over into the land of milk and honey because he represents the best of a new generation of African Americans who are not limited by the psychic scars inflicted under the Jim Crow system.   In six semesters at Georgia Tech, Jacob received only one “B” in an otherwise straight “A” academic record.  His commitment to showing his peers that they too can achieve at this level led him to launch Scholarship Sundays, a weekly program that encourages students to use the weekend to “start their week ahead.”  Thus mentoring is at the core of his extensive leadership activities, which include serving as Senior Class President and President of the Nu Mu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.

What do you think your candidacy rates on the Rhodo-meter (that is, the number of times Cecil Rhodes is rolling over in his grave at the thought of you receiving a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University)?

In December of 1982, one of the first women to receive a Rhodes scholarship asked me that question.  Evaluation of candidates started the night before the interviews over drinks and dinner at a swanky gentleman’s club in Richmond, Virginia.  An Act of Parliament had altered the terms of Rhodes’ will in 1977 so that women could become members of one of the most prestigious and exclusive clubs in the world (7,000 Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded since 1902).  Yet we were standing in a club that still restricted membership to whites only.  At the close of the evening, silent black hands offered me a dish of vanilla ice cream that I could not eat because, like many African Americans, I am lactose intolerant.  As I passed my dessert to a Naval cadet who was ultimately selected as one of the winners, I struggled with doubts about whether I would ever feel entitled to enter the club in a capacity that didn’t entail cooking, cleaning, or serving.

But doubts about whether I wanted to enter the club also plagued me.  As I dutifully plowed through a biography of the “great man” in the summer of 1982, I became aware of the increasingly vocal movement pressuring universities to disavow the apartheid government and divest from South African companies.   I learned that Cecil Rhodes was one of the architects of what ultimately became the heinous pass law system in South Africa.  I learned that his ambition to establish a “Cape to Cairo” railway launched a land grab of almost a million square miles in areas now known as Zambia, Malawi, and Botswana.  And I learned that he originally wanted to use the blood money he extracted from the De Beers diamond mines to found an Aryan secret society.  Despite his plans to travel to Nigeria, Jacob had never read Chinua Achebe’s account of how British colonial incursions made Things Fall Apart and when asked “Do you admire Cecil Rhodes?” he hesitantly answered, “Yes.”  So I skewered him:

Manumission of slaves was severely restricted in the United States, but in Latin America it was easier for enslaved Africans to purchase their freedom.  A sizeable population of Yoruba people enslaved in Brazil earned their freedom and returned to Lagos, but they held themselves apart from the local population and their business interests led them to collaborate with the British, ultimately helping extend colonial rule over Nigeria.  If you were awarded a Rhodes scholarship (funded by profits from Africans’ forced labor) and began to work with the governments of emerging nations to develop infrastructure, what would keep you from becoming a similar tool of neo-colonialism?

Jacob later admitted that was the most difficult question he had faced in two weeks of mock interviews, but I believe a person who has supported Katrina evacuees’ “road home” by leading three groups of over thirty Tech students on community service trips to New Orleans can wade in the waters and “won’t let nobody turn him around.”

What force is your greatest challenge on your journey to “The Promised Land?”

“Doubt” he said, “There will always be people who will doubt what you are trying to do, who won’t believe it can be done.”  But Jacob exudes a cool confidence that inspires faith in his vision.  He did not win a Rhodes scholarship this time, but we can all be proud that he was one of the few selected in the first round of competition and Jacob will never have to fear an interview again.  I have no doubt that he will build many bridges over Jordan.

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