Rhodes less traveled

Williston scholar hopes to reduce poverty

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship was easy for Genevieve Quist compared to her first teaching job.

Yes, the application and interview process for the prestigious international scholarship was tough: First she had to interview with her alma mater, Cornell University, to be endorsed; then there was the paperwork and a seven-month wait – along with 895 other candidates. Then came the interviews – including a “high stakes cocktail party” – to which only the top quarter made it. Ultimately, she was one of only 32 Americans to receive the award.

Still, teaching her first sixth grade English class was much harder, she said.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life,” Quist said last week, visiting home during her Thanksgiving break. “I was 21. I didn’t even consider myself an adult and all of a sudden I was responsible for 35 kids.”

Most of the students in her South Central Los Angeles middle school were learning English as a second language; half of the parents of her students didn’t speak any English.

It is in the halls of Charles R. Drew Middle School that Quist, now 22, is solidifying her frustration with poverty, and her commitment to doing something about it.
In a master’s program in comparative social policy at Oxford starting next year – paid for in full by the Rhodes Scholarship – Quist hopes to study the public policy differences between the United Kingdom and the U.S.

“Both had high poverty rates in the early ‘90s, but then took different approaches,” Quist said. “The U.K. has done quite well and the U.S. has gotten worse.”

Quist said part of the problem is that the U.S. does not emphasize training and education when working with people on welfare.

“It’s ‘welfare to McDonald’s,’” Quist said. “It doesn’t help people become economically self-sufficient, especially people who are trying to support families.”

Quist’s first exposure to extreme poverty came from a spring break trip to Lima, Peru, led by her history professor at Rice High School. She saw families crowded into huts and children’s skin discolored from malnutrition.

“There was a complete lack of resources that we take for granted every day,” Quist said. “It reinforced the idea that as human beings we have essential rights – shelter, food, basic health care – basic rights (that) shouldn’t be considered luxuries by governments.”

At Cornell University, where she studied in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, she got involved in a research project on rural poverty. Broken pipes and windows were common in the households in which she conducted interviews; in one home, newspapers were stacked along walls throughout the house to help retain heat. Sometimes, Quist said, she would get into her car after an interview and cry.

Joining Teach for America – a corps of recent college graduates teaching in underprivileged school districts – was Quist’s way of ensuring she could have some direct impact, as well as a better understanding of education and poverty systems.

The program is a good match for her; as someone often described as a “hard worker” and “very intense,” her persistence and passion are essential to navigate a system short on resources. For 2,600 students, for example, there is one school psychologist, Quist said. When a sixth grader confided to Quist she’d been sexually abused, the only free community resources available for help had a seven-month wait.

“I see my kids and some of them are so bright, just so intelligent, just as bright as Emma,” Quist said, referring to her 11-year-old sister. And yet she knows their chances of going to college are dramatically worse than her sister’s because of their backgrounds.

“To see that kind of potential that’s gone untapped and feel that responsibility, that it’s my job to bring it out, that’s overwhelming sometimes,” Quist said.

Still, there are moments that keep Quist going. A sixth grader gave her a note, handwritten with a marker, that Quist said she’ll keep forever: “Ms. Quist,” the note read, “thank you very much. I see you in my heart every day.”

When Quist finishes her studies at Oxford, she hopes to manage a nonprofit or design pilot research programs addressing poverty.

British philanthropist and African colonial pioneer Cecil Rhodes established the awards in 1902 in his will. Applicants are chosen based not only on high academic achievement and physical vigor, but a demonstration of “truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.” Leadership instincts, a “moral force of character,” and interest in fellow human beings are also required.