If you ask township resident Alexander Diaz what being named a Rhodes Scholar means, he won’t talk about himself or his accomplishments. He’ll talk about what it means as a North Bergen resident, minority, and Diaz family member.
Receiving the greatest academic scholarship in the land isn’t changing the demeanor of the unassuming but confident Harvard senior.
“It wasn’t as much a win for me, as for the community which I stand for,” said the self-described Cuban-Dominican Afro Latino. “I think this was a huge win in general.
“This is a dream come true. I’m a son of an immigrant. I grew up in the inner city. I’m the son of a working class family. I didn’t even know what Harvard or Rhodes was growing up,” he said. “To win arguably the most prestigious scholarship in the world is incredible. To some degree, the American dream is alive.”
And he isn’t parsing words either when it comes to how he expects this selection will affect him.
“I think in terms of life experiences, this is going to be the greatest two years of my life,” Diaz said. “This will put me in contact with the group of the world’s greatest leaders. It’s really an investment for the rest of your life.”
Diaz was one of 32 Rhodes Scholars from the United States announced Nov. 23 after a rigorous two-day process. The scholarships cover all expenses for two years of study for two masters programs at Oxford University in England.
The four major criteria for the award were scholastic achievement, physical vigor, dedication to helping those the least well-off, and strength of character, according to Diaz. A candidate’s personality and leadership potential are also major factors. And all of the qualifications are judged by panels of up to 12 people, taking every answer into account.
The selection process
“They throw you questions from left field,” he said. “They want to test your ability to think out of the box, and see the other side. Rhodes is a well-rounded process. They’re picking future leaders.”
Though he had no idea if he would definitely win, Diaz was confident going into the selection process on Nov. 22. A week before, he had already won the Marshall Scholarship, an honor similar to Rhodes.
“I went into it with confidence, but with Rhodes you interact with your competition,” he said. “All of us are winners. I had kind of come back down to earth. I had to turn it back up.”
That he did, enough to be one of only two individuals that weekend to be chosen for the district that includes Maine, New Hampshire New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont. He was one of only 32 in the entire country – and 80 in the whole world.
Teasing dad and stepmom
After his selection, Diaz decided to play a little with his father and stepmother before admitting to them he had won.
“Being the mean son that I am, at the end of the interview, I just texted them ‘pick me up,’” without telling them, he said. “When they got there, I was holding the package which read ‘Materials for 2014 Rhodes Scholar Elect.’ And they went crazy. They started a commotion in Times Square.”
One major step is still left in the process – Diaz still has to apply for the master’s programs there.
“I have to fully be accepted to the school,” he said. “In the next month or two it happens.”
All begins late next year
But Oxford is still about 10 months away. Diaz will graduate from Harvard in May. Then in September, he and the other selectees will be flown to Washington, D.C., to go to Congress, meet Rhodes Scholar alumni there, and visit the White House. Then in October, they ship off to England.
While there, Diaz plans to travel around Europe, utilizing the stipend given to students for that purpose. He feels that visiting at least 20 countries won’t be out of reach.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.