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.
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.”