UW-Eau Claire Rhodes Winner: Personal Attention for Honors Student Made the Difference

By Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire

Tayo Sanders II was a talented high school student with a passion for science and an eye toward a career in medicine or engineering the first time he stepped onto the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.

While bright and ambitious, at that time the word research didn’t mean a lot to Sanders, nanoscience sounded like a foreign language, he’d barely traveled outside of Wisconsin, and he’d never even heard of the Rhodes scholarship.

Tayo Sanders: "I can't imagine myself as a Rhodes Scholar if I had gone to school anywhere else."

But a friend’s father who was a physician and a UW-Eau Claire graduate convinced him that his alma mater, a regional public university with a nationally known chemistry program and highly accessible professors, would be a good fit for Sanders, a first-generation college student with limited financial resources.

Turns out, his friend’s dad could not have been more right.

In November 2014, Sanders was named one of 32 American students who will make up the 2015 Rhodes scholar class. In October — after graduating from UW-Eau Claire and then completing a summer internship at an investment firm in Washington, D.C. — he will begin his studies at Oxford University in England, where he will pursue his doctoral degree in materials while immersed in research alongside some of the world’s most respected scientists.

As a Rhodes scholar, Sanders joins an elite group that includes U.S. presidents, members of Congress, artists and others who are known internationally for their contributions to their chosen professions.

“In many ways, it still hasn’t fully sunk in,” says Sanders, who is one of just a handful of students from a public regional university to ever be selected as a Rhodes scholar, arguably the most prestigious scholarship program in the world. “When my professors suggested that I apply to be a Rhodes scholar, I didn’t even know what it was. And once I looked into it, I didn’t think I had a chance. But they convinced me to try and helped me believe it was possible.”

“I can’t imagine myself as a Rhodes scholar if I had gone to school anywhere else.”

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Meet Tayo Sanders–Rhodes Scholar 2015, UW-Eau Claire

One of the most positive developments in higher education has been the establishment of honors colleges and programs in public “regional comprehensive” universities–and in the last few years both the honors programs and the universities have shown that their students can compete with any in the land.

Take the case of Tayo Sanders II, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Honors Program student who has completed 11 research projects, published two papers in materials science journals, made 11 presentations around the country, won a Goldwater Scholarship…oh, and was named a Rhodes Scholar for 2015. 

In addition, in Spring 2015, Tayo will serve as a mentor in University Honors, co-teaching a section of Honors 100, said Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, director of University Honors. The UW-Eau Clair Honors Program was one of five regional comprehensive honors programs we reviewed in the 2014 edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.  The other regional university honors programs or colleges we reviewed are at Eastern Illinois, Grand Valley State, UNC Wilmington, and Western Kentucky.

“In my judgment, Tayo Sanders will rise to the very top of every endeavor in which he chooses to take significant part, and will spend his life leading,” Vahlbusch said.  “In Tayo, a truly stellar intellect and a sheer unending range of interests and abilities are united with a wonderfully engaging personality, great communications skills, and deep care and respect for others.  Everything that Tayo is and does is characterized by a humane gentleness, a fine sense of humor, and strong loyalty to the programs and organizations in which he works and plays.”

In his spare time, Tayo serves as co-captain of the university’s triathlon club, and he has competed in collegiate triathlons around the country.  And then there’s his mastery of Salsa dancing, his work as a University Ambassador and Ronald E. McNair Scholar, and his community outreach work in which he interests K-6 students in STEM careers.  But nothing gets in the way of his passion for research.

“Tayo is an outstanding researcher, and I doubt there are many undergraduate researchers possessing such a broad, yet well-developed, skill set,” said Dr. Jennifer Dahl, an assistant professor in the department of materials science.  She has facilitated and mentored Tayo’s research for three years. “I met Tayo early in his first semester at UW-Eau Claire and was instantly impressed by his poise, intelligence and enthusiasm for science.”

Tayo Sanders and Dr. Jennifer Dahl

(Tayo will earn his bachelor’s degree in materials science with emphasis in chemistry and liberal arts from UW-Eau Claire in May 2015.)

He is one new Rhodes Scholar who has already been to Oxford:  Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, he participated in a nanoparticles research project at the University of Strasbourg in France in the summer of 2013.  During the research program, he made a trip to Oxford University and met faculty and students and toured the materials labs.  It was then that he decided he wanted to pursue a doctorate at the famous institution–and now he will as a Rhodes Scholar.

A first generation college student, Tayo now wants to follow in the footsteps of his research mentor and the other faculty he has worked with in material science and the honors program.

“My ultimate goal is to become a professor and emulate the research experience I’ve had with Dr. Dahl with students of my own,” Tayo said. “I will do everything I can to be in a position where I can give hope to students like she has given hope to me. I also want to continue contributing to the pursuit of economical solar harvesting solutions, and be a powerful advocate for sustainable development and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education.”

“I’ve been so fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with so many faculty,” he said. “These are the individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to academic pursuits, and to be able to easily engage in direct discourse with professors creates opportunities for a much more profound comprehension of material.  UWEC’s emphasis on undergraduate research has also developed my ability to draw connections between material learned in my courses and their applications to the real world — a skill that will prove absolutely essential as I continue on my academic path at Oxford.”

“Tayo Sanders’ selection for this prestigious honor — in the company of fellow scholars from private institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Princeton — is a testament to his outstanding effort as an undergraduate student,” said UW Chancellor James Schmidt. “It also is a testament to the contributions of the many dedicated faculty and staff here at UW-Eau Claire who day after day provide the excellent teaching and the beyond-the-classroom experiences that prepare our students to excel when they go out into the world with their Blugold degree in hand. Tayo is a shining example of the value of a UW-Eau Claire degree.”

The Rhodes Scholarships, averaging about $50,000 per year, cover all costs for two or three years of study at Oxford.  Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.