A difficult year is ending joyfully for three Harvard College students and an alumnus who have been awarded Marshall and International Rhodes scholarships.
Jorge Ledesma, Humza Jilani, Evelyn Wong, and Eli Zuzovsky plan to continue their educations with graduate studies at Oxford University and at University College London. In interviews with the Gazette, they shared their reactions and their future plans.
Jorge Ledesma ’19
Where: Oxford University
Ledesma’s path to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar is the culmination of a young lifetime of deep experiences. From a childhood diagnosis of partial paralysis to immigrating to the United States from Colombia at age 8, to studying at Harvard as a low-income student, to now working for the Suffolk County District Attorney in Boston, he sees the award as the next critical step in his development.
“As part of (District Attorney Rachael Rollins’) executive team, I have seen both how COVID has drastically impacted jails and prisons and the impactful protests connected to George Floyd,” he said. “Part of the reckoning for me was the way in which I saw the solidarity [for racial justice] in the U.S. reflected across the globe. And it was particularly strong in the U.K.”
Ledesma, who was advocacy director of the Y2Y Harvard Square youth homeless shelter while an undergraduate, now works with Black and Latino youth, especially those with disabilities, whose worlds intersect with law enforcement.
“Nearly half of deaths as a result of police violence involve people with disabilities, and a disproportionate number of those are people of color,” he said. “The inadequacy of mental health programs and the fact that so much police training tends to be very utilitarian leads to these very tense interactions.”
That is why Ledesma was “very honored, but very sobered” to get news about the Marshall. “It’s been a unique and very difficult year. COVID has exacerbated so many of the issues we already face. For me, it’s been more of a call to action than an awakening. This is just a start.”
Humza Jilani ’21
Where: Oxford University
The seeds of Jilani’s fascination with global political regimes and their effects on everyday life were planted as a first-year student when he took the course “Comparative Democratization” with government Professor Steven Levitsky.
“I felt really inspired by what I learned in that class and wanted to compare what we see in the U.S. with polarization and our media culture with other countries and see what lessons we can take from different parts of the world,” said Jilani.
Three years later, he is writing a senior thesis on the uses of violence by Southern Democrats after Reconstruction and modern Hindu nationalist parties in India.
He will pursue a master’s degree at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations as a Marshall Scholar, with a focus on the ways that digital technology can divide societies and weaken democracies.
The pathway to the award wasn’t easy, and Jilani was hesitant to apply at first. With the help of mentors and professors who held mock interviews and reviewed his essays, he overcome any doubt.
“More than anything else, what I really appreciated most about this process was actually the journey, just the ability to excavate so many different aspects of my childhood and my teenage years, and my college life, and really tying it into my future,” he said. “I think these self-reflective moments are really important. I think that everyone should try [things because] it doesn’t hurt to put your hat in the ring. You can be really surprised by what you can achieve.”
Evelyn Wong ’21
Where: University College London
For Wong, applying for a Marshall Scholarship required a leap of faith in herself. So, it seemed fitting in a small way that during the few days between her final interview and receiving the award, she took another leap — into a pile of leaves — with one of the Quincy House tutor’s children.
The leaf-jumping was part of the self-reflection that included calling friends, family, and mentors who had been part of her journey. Wong, who is from Los Angeles, credited those community members — especially her resident tutor Anil Mundra — with helping her through difficult moments.
“As a first-generation, low-income student, I really struggled in my freshman and sophomore years,” said Wong, who will study neuroscience at University College London. “There are so many people who helped me get here. And at the end of the day, I want to pay that forward, especially to my younger counterparts back in East L.A. who might be doubting their ability to even have a chance.”
Wong wants to become a physician-scientist to improve health outcomes for refugees around the world.
“My entire life, I’ve lived in between cultures, languages, and especially classes. A lot of times, I feel like our voices are left out of this moving trajectory of scientific progress because the technologies that are meant to save the world are not accessible to people in my community, and to refugee communities around the world,” she said. “The stark difference in the worlds I’ve learned to navigate has given me an awareness of the extent of inequality that exists in the society that we live in. And it motivates me every single day to give back.”
Eli Zuzovsky ’21
Award: International Rhodes
Where: Oxford University
Zuzovsky, who is from Israel, found out about the International Rhodes scholarship two weeks ago but is still “waiting for them to call and say they picked the wrong guy.”
He was joking, of course, but admitted that the doubt came in part from having to get up at 4 a.m. to interview virtually, and in part because he was one of the few arts and humanities finalists.
“We need the storytellers to reflect on and challenge the stories of this time. I’m excited and so grateful to get that type of reassurance. We have to hope that people still believe in the transformative power of the arts,” said Zuzovsky.
A double concentrator in Art, Film, and Visual Studies and English with a secondary in Theater, Dance & Media, the 25-year-old grew up in Tel Aviv, which requires a mandatory military service. So, he spent part of that time as a reporter during the Israel-Gaza strife in 2014 and as an editor of the Israeli Defense Force’s magazine.
At Harvard, his senior thesis is a combination short film and novella that reimagines his bar mitzvah and what it meant to “become a man during a war as a gay boy where you are not part of the mainstream idea of masculinity.”
At Oxford, he plans to study historical and fictional narratives of marginalized groups.