Dreams take flight and aspirations soar for virtually all the students who come to Saint John’s University. There’s a special stratosphere for Rhodes Scholars, however, and for just the second time in history, a Johnnie is at that altitude.
Jervon Sands '23, an applied physics major from Nassau in The Bahamas, achieved the honor – the first from SJU to do so in more than 50 years – on Tuesday (Nov. 14) when he was chosen to represent the Commonwealth Caribbean in a presentation at the State House in Barbados by President Sandra Mason.
Based at England’s University of Oxford since 1903, the Rhodes Scholarship is not only the world’s oldest graduate fellowship, but is considered among the most preeminent as well. Its recipients include former President Bill Clinton, author Naomi Wolf and current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, as well as winners of the Nobel Prize.
And now Sands, who wants to devote his career to helping solve climate change – especially in his native islands, has etched his name on the Rhodes’ list forever, too.
“It’s definitely a big deal,” Sands said on Friday via Zoom from Puerto Rico, where he's currently serving in the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. “It’s an opportunity that will help me realize the goals that I’ve set. Growing up, I had a mindset of seeing certain problems that I wanted to change or fix. You start dreaming really big and making steps along the way. Then, at some point, you come to the realization that those dreams aren’t so big. They’re achievable.”
Sands, who graduated summa cum laude from SJU, will study for the Master of Sciences (MSc) in Environmental Change and Management, and MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment beginning in October 2024 at Oxford.
"The entire St. John’s and St. Ben’s community is proud of Jervon for his stunning achievement of being named a 2024 Rhodes Scholar," CSB and SJU president Brian Bruess said. "Such prestigious recognition reflects exceptional scholarly achievement by Jervon and makes a bold statement about the superior quality of our faculty and the rigorous educational experience we offer our students. Jervon, being honored in this way, reflects our greatest hope for all our students. We joyfully celebrate this milestone and cheer him on as he embarks on the next chapter of his journey of human flourishing and his next goal of solving one the most perplexing challenges facing society: climate change."
Sandra Mason, President of Barbados, congratulates Saint John’s University graduate Jervon Sands, the 2024 Rhodes Scholar for the Commonwealth Caribbean, during a ceremony Tuesday night. Looking on is Secretary of the Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee, Bertha Pilgrim.
Whirlwind of travel and lost sleep
The Rhodes Scholar program was created by Cecil John Rhodes, a British mining magnate and South African politician. Each year, one recipient from the Commonwealth Caribbean is chosen. The United States has 32 recipients annually, and there are a total of 101 awards each year to students from countries around the world.
Sands and the other nine finalists for the Commonwealth Rhodes were flown into Barbados on Monday. They had dinner and Tuesday was a marathon of interviews and waiting. Four of the others were from Trinidad and Tobago; three came from Guyana, and one each from Antigua, The Bahamas and Barbados.
Sands was the ninth of 10 candidates to speak with the officials who were to make the decision. He was as surprised as anyone when he was chosen.
“Honestly, I was feeling and thinking a lot of different things,” Sands said. “I’d gotten to know the other people in the room, and they were all deserving scholars, all among the best from the Caribbean. When they called my name, I was just, ‘Wow!’ Excited. I didn’t know how to think in that moment. I feel like I kicked into auto pilot. I remember walking up and shaking hands and saying, ‘Thank you.’ I remember thinking in the taxi on the way back to the hotel about all the work I’d done to get to that point. I don’t think it’s fully settled in yet.”
He traveled back to The Bahamas, via a connecting flight through Miami. He was in Nassau for less than 24 hours – long enough for his mom to greet him at the airport with a bear hug and take him to visit his two younger brothers at their grade school. It was his first return since he started with the BVC.
“There’s so much happening and so much to talk about,” Sands said. “The family group chat was a lot of congratulations and encouragement. It was great to share it with the people who love me and are a part of my support system.”
On Thursday, he flew back to Puerto Rico, where he serves as a teacher and coach to students at a school near Monasterio San Antonio Abad in Humacao. He arrived on Friday morning, still without sleep, and wondering if it was a dream.
OURS sparked the idea of competing for Rhodes
Sands said he decided to apply only last spring, after he’d been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and a week before graduation in Collegeville.
“The Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholars had sent out some information on scholarships, and the Rhodes was there,” Sands said. “I did some digging and found out what options there were for people from the Caribbean, and there was a Caribbean Rhodes. So, it was on my periphery. But it wasn’t until a conversation I had at Brother Willie’s pub with my co-worker (Sean Fischer ’23) and boss (Sydney Robinson ’19) that I decided to go for it.”
He started his application the first day it was possible, notified his references and, throughout the summer worked with competitive fellowships advisors Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch and Phil Kronebusch. Sands honed his materials in collaboration with faculty and friends until he finally submitted academic and personal statements and a CV in late September.
“Those were products of a lot of revisions,” Sands said. “I probably wrote my personal statement three ways, and the final version was a combination of the three. I tried to represent myself the best I could.”
That’s never been a concern.
“It has been a pleasure to support Jervon in his journey to becoming a Rhodes Scholar,” Gutsch said. “As a student, he engaged with the Experience Hub frequently. He completed two undergraduate research projects and completed two internships through Summer Leadership Fellows, and it all comes full circle to work with our office again on his Rhodes application. Jervon’s experience is a testament to the transformation that can happen through high-impact practices at CSB and SJU. Moreover, he truly embodies our Benedictine Values. He embraced every opportunity presented to him and he is so deserving of the Rhodes.”
Joins exclusive club among Rhodes Scholars
The Rhodes selection process aims to choose young people with proven academic excellence who show exceptional character, leadership, the energy to use their talents to the full, and a commitment to solving humanity’s challenges. The overall global success rate for applicants is 0.7%, making it one of the most competitive scholarships in the world.
The only previous Johnnie to become a Rhodes Scholar was Steven Michaud ’67, who earned the honor in 1969. A native of Chisholm, Minnesota, Michaud was an Upper Midwest Golden Gloves boxing champion and graduated summa cum laude from SJU. He studied Japanese at Harvard and went to Hiroshima University on a Rotary International Fellowship before his two-year appointment to Oxford. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978.
Although women were not eligible to be Rhodes Scholars until 1977, the College of Saint Benedict also has had two – Rachel Mullin ’14 earned the distinction for 2016, and Laura McGrane ’91 became a Rhodes Scholar in 1992.
Mullin was a political science and history major from Humboldt, South Dakota, and also a Truman Scholar as a junior at CSB, before serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia. She earned two master’s degrees at Oxford, the first in refugees and forced migration studies, and the second in public policy. Mullin now works in Washington, D.C., as a product marketing manager with Sendwave, an organization that facilitates the transfer of money to Africa and Asia.
McGrane, an English major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earned an MSc in comparative education at Oxford and got her Ph.D. in English and American literature at Stanford. Today, she is associate provost for strategic initiatives and an associate professor of English at Haverford (Pennsylvania) College.
Sands spoke with Mullin during the application process, too, and credits her with helping him give his best effort.
“So many people helped me, I can’t thank them all enough,” he said.
Jervon Sands (far left) was among nine students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annual Conference of the Parties in late 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Distinguished by undergraduate research, internships
Sands was a Jackson Fellow in 2021, working with the alumni association of the high school he attended, St. Augustine’s College. He also studied in London, where he worked for a climate change charity, and attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known COP 26, in Scotland.
In 2022, he was a Brandl Scholar. He returned to The Bahamas and worked with the departments of lands and surveys, physical planning, and environmental planning and protection. He also was among a group of CSB and SJU students who traveled to COP 27 in Egypt.
On campus, he was an international student mentor in the Multicultural Center and worked as a Help Desk assistant with IT services. He lived at Marmion House, a residence at Saint John’s where students strive to save energy, reduce waste, compost, care for the nearby greenhouse, recycle and use a variety of other environmentally friendly living techniques.
“The greatest part of my experience at Saint John’s that led to me becoming a Rhodes Scholar was the reason I came to school there: The immense opportunity there is on campus,” Sands said. “I connected with students, staff and faculty and learned from them. I was exposed to opportunity and that helped me build a portfolio throughout my experience that led me to be who I am today.”
After Oxford, Sands plans to return to The Bahamas to work within government and other institutions to help promote education on climate change. His interest comes from witnessing its impacts firsthand – especially in the wake of increasingly damaging hurricanes. Caribbean coral reefs and marine ecosystems also appear to be suffering, and coastal erosion has been alarming.
At SJU, he conducted research centered on infrastructure development and community-based solutions from the diverse perspectives of indigenous people and women. The Bahamas also is challenged in the current discussion on climate issues because it is not a major carbon producer and yet doesn’t have a large economy to battle its effects, either. And waiting on mitigation from the rest of the world probably isn’t sound policy.
Don’t be surprised someday if Sands isn’t helping frame that response, especially with the doors that will open to him as a Rhodes Scholar.
“I just have to keep doing the work, just like I did at Saint John’s,” Sands said. “As I do the work, my reach and impact will grow and that will help me have a greater impact in my country and the region. There’s been a lot of growth in me since the fall of 2019, and I’m grateful for that. Saint John’s has played a major role in me developing into the person I’m becoming. I had a lot of mentorship roles on campus, and I hope to inspire other students.”