Seven students with New England connections, including an Acton resident and the first DACA recipient, were awarded Rhodes scholarships, the Rhodes Trust announced Sunday.
The seven were among 32 nationally who won the prestigious award to study at Oxford University next fall, the organization said in a statement. The century-old prize was named for British businessman Cecil Rhodes.
The Acton student, Yale senior Eren Orbey, said he thought of his late father when he heard the announcement Saturday. Orbey, 23, was a witness to his father’s murder while visiting family in Turkey 20 years ago.
“I think I’ve suffered a lot of my life. I missed most of childhood because of what happened to my dad,” he said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.
Orbey said the shooting — a random home invasion gone wrong — loomed over his childhood and has come to deeply inform his work as a writer and journalist. His senior thesis at Yale focuses on the long-term effects of trauma, and he is working on a project that involves writing about his father and his father’s killer.
He has returned twice to that apartment where he and his sister hid in a closet as his mother was held at gunpoint, he said. He has read court documents, he said, and combed through sensationalized Turkish media coverage of the incident, including photos of his father’s body they published.
“The question is how do we use writing to bring light to problems the world is facing without exploiting, without sensationalizing trauma in a way that is detrimental to the people experiencing it,” said Orbey.
“The death made me a more empathic writer and reporter because I’ve been the other side of it.”
Winning the Rhodes scholarship validates his sense of idealism, he said , a belief that good things can come despite tragedy.
“I think so much of culture condescends to survivors of trauma,” Orbey said. “My story is proof that the bad things that happen to us are occasions for growth and optimism.”
He will pursue master’s degrees in history and literature at Oxford, he said. Achieving those degrees would fulfill the promise of his parents’ immigration from Turkey to give him and his sister greater opportunities.
And it will give him the chance to delve into subjects he has had less time for, as a computer science and English double major at Yale, Orbey said.
“I’m so excited,” he said.
Another winner of the scholarship, a Harvard student from New York, Jin Kyu Park, is the first Rhodes winner to be an undocumented immigrant, protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the organization.
This is the first year such students have been eligible, organizers said. Park, a South Korean immigrant, is the founder of a nonprofit organization that helps undocumented students apply to college, and will be pursuing master’s degrees studying migration and global health issues.
“This year’s American Rhodes scholars — independently elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously — once again reflect the extraordinary diversity that characterizes the United States,” said Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust in a statement. “Almost half of the winners are immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans.”
Winners also included a Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering student, a Harvard Crimson editor, and students from Brown and Yale.Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.