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Rhodes Scholar Essay Example 1 - Personal Statement

Provide a short Personal Statement describing your academic and other interests. This statement should describe the specific area of proposed study and your reasons for wishing to study at Oxford

“Without contraries is no progression.”

William Blake

Having twelve parents in a town of 600 was erratic and eye-opening. My six parents in childhood were products of divorce and remarriage, the six foster parents in adolescence the consequence of unsuccessful remarriages. While dialogues of dysfunction usually accompany this kind of tale, mine was one of fluid counterbalance. The various homes that welcomed me, often last-minute with my sleeping bag in hand, revealed to me a supple sense of diversity. The one constant in [my Midwestern town], however, was ignorance of the outside—geographically, politically, and religiously. The homogeneous farming community—and [my state] generally afforded little opportunity to explore or appreciate uniqueness. I suppose this “small town mentality” is best exemplified by the evening in spring 2003 when American bombs ignited Baghdad. The dormitory dining hall’s eyes gaped at the television, while the hall’s ears heard rapid whispers equating ‘terrorists’ with ‘Saddam’ and ‘Muslims’ with ‘Osama’. Knowing my military stepmother was headed to the center of the conflict, I ignored the broadcast with defiant ignorance. As the bombs flattened, so did my budding global perspective; simply put, not knowing the details of the struggle seemed better than trying to understand a multifaceted conflict.

I studied in Oslo later that year, still trying to overlook the Middle Eastern and Islamic world. Ironically, my best friends in Norway were Moroccan, Israeli, and French-Afghani. I also taught at the Oslo International School, with the student populace representing over 40 countries. My companions and students abroad, who ultimately became my teachers, were touchstones of a world that I had embarrassingly dismissed, avoided, and even rejected.

Long fascinated by literature and religious studies, I began to grasp religious scholar Karen Armstrong’s idea that “Theology and literature both teach one to connect the like with the unlike and to see that this can make a new truth.” Drawn to the wisdom in this, I found a way to embrace the seemingly irreconcilable contrasts in my life. In the spirit of this balance, my mother returned from the war and my father, just months later, left for Baghdad. By this time, my global interest had dramatically transformed from that of a farm-boy freshman. The world during that time became much smaller for me: my father, working with U.S. intelligence in Iraq, often emailed me in [the Midwest], for Iraqi news. I realized then that something is, and has been, profoundly irregular in the interaction between east and west. Despite our online ‘global community’, even basic facts are lost in their voyage across hemispheres. If such discrepancies exist, what hope do Middle Eastern voices, perceptions, and emotions have to find a western audience and vice versa? I found myself longing not only to understand but also to influence modern struggles with hindsight from the medieval literary and religious past. In my passion to integrate medieval classics like Beowulf and Chaucer with the seemingly disparate modern Middle East, I was continually drawn to the crusades.

Fortuitously, my return from Europe this summer aligned with my father’s short leave from Iraq. Amidst sharing adventure stories, our conversations drifted to my continuing interest in the crusades and the divergent voices echoed in Arabic and Christian art, literature, and historical records. I was taken aback when he mentioned that, in fact, he had numerous conversations with Iraqis on exactly that subject. When I asked him if he thought that affected how they view the current conflict, he reflected, “I’m positive it does, but I’m not sure how.” By the end of the day, my father and I had developed plans for my trip to Baghdad in February so that I could begin to find out.

In 1984, Amin Maalouf collected narratives by Arab chroniclers of the crusades in The Crusades through Arab Eyes. In Iraq, I hope to gather modern narratives from Iraqis and American soldiers about their cultural memory of the crusades and their consequent perceptions of today’s clash. I believe that the most effective way to change the world is to change people’s perspectives and ideas about the world. While sociology and political science can deconstruct the struggle through their lenses, the intimate lens of literature—like Maalouf’s collection—affords a crucial catalyst for such growth.

Admittedly, medieval studies can be viewed, and perhaps rightly so at times, as a distant and obscure subject. My interest is in the crusades’ fundamental relevance to global issues today through its correspondences and its contraries. While at Oxford, I plan to compare eastern and western medieval literature, manuscripts, and art portraying the crusades. For instance, I will study Persian historian Rashid al-Din’s stylized Persian depiction of Pope Gregory IX in Oxford’s Fulk of Neully [Ms Laud Misc 587 fo.1] alongside “St Bernard, Cistercian abbot of Clairvaux” [MS 49 fo.162r]. The primary literary source I will work with is The Song of Roland for its fictionalized depiction of Charlemagne as quintessential enemy of Islam. More specifically, I will evaluate models of the convivencia, the coexistence of Christians and Spanish Muslims. In that context, I will use manuscripts like Alfonso X of Castile’s A Treatise on Chess to explore further the development of Prester John, a Christian-Muslim mythical hero, as an exemplification of “crusading convivencia.” Not only does Oxford have the richest supply of relevant manuscripts, it also boasts the leading group of scholars of the religious Middle Ages.

My passion is to mine the riches inherent in opposites: provincial town and multifaceted world, willful ignorance and ardent curiosity, the medieval and the modern. After spending this spring working in Iraq and this summer joining a professor on an ancient Canaanite archaeological dig outside Jerusalem, my journey towards the crusades will continue. I hope to find myself at the welcoming doors of Oxford University next fall, to approach the unique manuscripts of the Bodleian library with awe compounded by anticipation, and then enter into the finest academic community available to cultivate my research and contribute my voice.

Original Source: University of Michigan Provost

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