In good company: What I learned from not-quite winning a Rhodes Scholarship

Eric Dietrich

Our community has a lot to celebrate this month. On the heels of senior Bryan Vadheim’s recognition as the first student in MSU’s history to receive a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, both MSU senior Joe Thiel and Amanda Frickle, a College of Idaho graduate employed by MSU ResLife, have been named Rhodes Scholars.

That success is quite personal for me, and not only because I was invited to interview alongside Joe and Amanda. I shared a dorm with Joe and Bryan for three semesters, and Joe and I once split a twin bed for a month in Kenya while working with the campus Engineers Without Borders chapter — an experience that ultimately anchored both our applications.

Similarly, I spent no small number of evenings this fall shuttered away across a wall from Amanda, a current housemate, as we wrote our respective essays — struggling for hours upon end to articulate our personal understandings of what it means to “fight the world’s fight.”

When Amanda, Joe and I learned we were finalists for the honor — three of only 15 in the Pacific Northwest — we turned to each other as we prepared for the infamously demanding interviews, spending an afternoon talking through our ideas in a Bozeman coffee shop.

In a high-rise Seattle law office two weeks later, we met our fellow finalists, most hailing from big-name institutions like Harvard, Stanford and Brown. We endured, alongside those others, the gut-wrenching tension of interviewing one by one.

I was there with Joe and Amanda as the selection committee’s chairman announced their names instead of my own, as my chest’s pit of empty nervousness gave sudden way to biting disappointment — and then, to my amazement, swelling pride.

I learned something about Montana in that instant, a deep-seated lesson about what it means to be a student at our scrappy land-grant university in the heart of the American West. There, mere feet from the highest pinnacle of achievement set before our nation’s academic climbers, I found myself concerned less with my personal defeat than my companions’ victory.

Here amidst mountains, our education instills an essential humility. We Montanans know what it means to take up responsibility beyond our years, to struggle along paths we forge ourselves, to stare down failure and pick ourselves back up in its face. We have no choice but to learn from each other, climb with each other and celebrate with each other — knowing too well that the world’s fight has hope only if it is fought together.

We celebrate our peers’ success not only because of their extraordinary individual accomplishments, but also because they reflect our community’s strength. Because they help us see the true value of our rugged education, and help us understand our campus as it is: A community where we have world-class talent in unexpected places, where students competing for one of the world’s most prestigious scholarships reflexively band together, where personal ambition takes a backseat to common cause.

Knowing all that, I’m damn proud to be a Bobcat.

  • Great piece Eric. You couldn’t have ended it any better. I cannot wait to see where your future lies.