Scholars make St. Olaf a colossus of Rhodes

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2007 - 9:53 PM

Two poverty-fighting students at the Northfield college are among just 32 nationwide to be named Rhodes Scholars.

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One college student worked in migrant camps in southeastern Iowa this summer, where she was an interpreter for a traveling health clinic.

The other spent two spring breaks organizing hundreds of classmates who traveled to the Gulf Coast to do volunteer labor for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

On Sunday, the two -- both seniors at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. -- were among 32 men and women from across the United States selected as 2008 Rhodes Scholars.

"I was shocked," said Ishanaa Rambachan, 20, a graduate of Eastview High School in Apple Valley, who got the news this weekend. "I think I exclaimed, 'Oh my God.'"

The other honoree, Nicole L. Novak, 21, said from her home in Iowa City, Iowa, that she was "kind of astonished at being selected."

The students, selected from among 764 applicants from 294 colleges and universities, will head to Oxford University in England to begin graduate studies next fall.

The double selection had St. Olaf officials bursting with pride.

The awards are the college's eighth and ninth Rhodes Scholarships.

"What the Rhodes committee looks for are people who have extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, but that's not enough," said David R. Anderson, the college's president. "They are really looking for people who also have a balance of excellence in their lives, and that means a passion for other things than merely intellectual attainment. Ishaana, for example, wants to save the world, and she probably will."

Prof. Gary De Krey, an academic adviser for the Rhodes Scholarships at St. Olaf, said Novak "has an extraordinary compassion for people in difficult circumstances, and she has shown that in action in Central America." She also organized a residential facility at St. Olaf for students committed to social justice and raised money for a reforestation project in Central America, he said.

Of the double awards, De Krey said, "There are few liberal arts colleges that got any, and to get two is phenomenal."

The two women are friends who have taken courses together and ran on the cross-country team as freshmen.

"It's incredible -- so I have a friend at Oxford for the next year and maybe someone to travel around Europe with me," Rambachan said.

Her parents grew up in Trinidad and moved to the United States in 1985. At St. Olaf, Rambachan and Novak have gotten mostly As and a B-plus or two. Novak majors in environmental studies and Spanish and Hispanic studies, with a concentration in statistics. Rambachan majors in political science and economics, with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies.

During one term, Novak lived with families in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua and studied sustainable development. In another class, she studied global health and biostatistics at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Novak said she was moved by "the way environmental degradation perpetuates poverty by harming human health." She said she was particularly affected by the increase in water-borne diseases caused by poor sanitation and water pollution in El Salvador. She plans to study global health science at Oxford.

"She always had that inner push to know even more," said her father, Dr. Tom Novak, a family physician. "She'd find out something, get interested, and then on her own, gather more information to satisfy her own curiosity."

A member of the student government -- and currently its vice president -- Rambachan co-chaired a relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.

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