English Major Named Rhodes Scholar
Senior English major Newman Nahas, UF's first Rhodes Scholar in over 20 years, cites his background as the son of Orthodox Syrian immigrants as an important catalyst for his intellectual curiosity. "I grew up in a complicated cultural mix, with Arabic, Christian, and American influences," he says. "I think not being a part of any dominant culture nurtured my interest in my surroundings."
Though Nahas was raised in Miami, he can trace his family's roots in Syria back a thousand years. The Orthodox Christian minority there has survived a variety of political conditions, and Nahas' interest in their circumstances led him to the topic he will focus on while he pursues a PhD in history at Oxford University. "There have been times in the Middle East when Christians, Jews, and Muslims have gotten along relatively well--especially before the Crusades," he explains. "But these periods remain understudied. I'd like to examine them and see if understanding those eras might help us with contemporary problems."
Nahas says he began to seriously consider the practical applications of such historical studies while he volunteered as a counselor at an Orthodox summer camp in Pennsylvania last summer. "There were a lot of Greek and Arab kids there, and I realized that many of these kids are disconnected from their culture and religion," he says. "I realized that many people would benefit from someone translating the Orthodox experience into the Western idiom, making it relevant to their lives."
Returning for his senior year with a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, Nahas decided to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. The application process was formidable. Nahas was required to submit eight letters of recommendation, write a study proposal, and write a discussion of his principal activities. "They don't ask for a résumé," he says. "In fact, the application is so open to interpretation that simply figuring out how best to complete it was a real challenge."
After receiving UF's endorsement, Nahas attended the state interview in Tampa. "The first evening was a social event, but it was nerve-wracking. You try to relax, but you have to assume that how you socialize is part of the formal assessment," Nahas explains. "The entire next day consists of interviews, and any topic is fair game. I spent a lot of time explaining and defending my study proposal."
At the end of the day, candidates learn whether or not they will fly to Atlanta the following morning for the final interviews. "When I learned that night that I would be going to the district interview, my adrenaline was really pumping. I didn't sleep much," Nahas admits. "And the next thing I know, I'm competing with all these amazing people in Atlanta."
But with his extraordinary credentials, Nahas had nothing to be nervous about. At the end of the final interviews he was named one of the Southeastern district's four Rhodes Scholars. Among his many accomplishments are a 4.0 grade point average, qualification for Phi Beta Kappa while a junior, and command of both Greek and Arabic. Nahas is also president of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, founder of the St. Romanus Choir (a traditional Byzantine and Russian choral group), and a volunteer in the "Best Buddy" program, which mentors mentally retarded children.
In the past, American Rhodes Scholars met and bonded while sailing to England. These days, they participate in a special preliminary week-long program of activities in Washington, DC, before flying to Oxford together each September. "I'm particularly excited about going to the White House and meeting with President Clinton, who was also a Rhodes Scholar," Nahas says. Past notable Rhodes recipients include Senator Bill Bradley, songwriter/ actor Kris Kristofferson, and educator and Senator William Fulbright (who sponsored the Fulbright Act of 1946, which initiated funds for the exchange of students, scholars, and teachers between the United States and other countries).
Cecil Rhodes, the award's founder, envisioned that recipients of the Scholarship should in some way dedicate their lives to public service. Mindful of this charge, Nahas would one day like to act as a political advisor on Middle Eastern issues. "I'm not interested in running for office, but I'd like to help the people who are elected," he says. "We often criticize our public officials, but somebody has to do this work, and I'd like to assist them."
Concern for helping others is central to Nahas' character. "It's very important to me that my faith bears fruit. I don't believe God cares how many Nicene Creeds I've recited if I haven't also helped my fellow man. This is something I keep in mind; it's something that drives me."
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In this Issue:
Note from the Dean
Meet the President
Jewish Studies at UF
Is Football a Religion?
It's Performance That Counts!
Alumni Profile: Dorothy and Terry Smiljanich
Around the College
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