UAA student wins Rhodes Scholarship

Before Samantha Mack applied, no UAA student had never been invited to interview for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Mack, a teaching assistant and master’s student in the English department, was the only UAA student to apply for the prestigious scholarship this year. She was the only one that mattered.

On Nov. 19, The New York Times published the list of 32 American students who were awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, including Mack. The Rhodes Scholarship funds postgraduate students who desire to study at the University of Oxford.

Samantha Mack is the first UAA student to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. The Rhodes Scholarship funds postgraduate students who desire to study at the University of Oxford. Photo credit: Young Kim

Mack interviewed for the scholarship late last month, and after several hours of waiting, the interview committee announced this year’s two scholars from District 14. District 14 includes all students applying from Montana, Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

“It was the most intense and stressful two and a half hours of my entire life,” Mack said. “And then they just came into the room and told us who had won, and it was overwhelming.”

Mack is also the first Alaska Native student to win the award. Though she was born in Anchorage, Mack was raised in King Cove, and her Aleut heritage has become very influential in her academic pursuits.

“I think that my indigeneity shapes every single part of my being,” Mack said. “My values, the things I value, the things I aim for in my education, the way I behave even as a role model for a younger generation for my cousins whom I love and care for and feel very deeply protective of.”

In spring of 2016, Mack graduated with degrees in English and political science as well as a minor in Alaska Native studies. In the spring of 2018, she will graduate with her M.A in English before traveling to Oxford to pursue either a master of philosophy or doctor of philosophy in political science. Her ultimate career goal is to be a college professor.

“I think if you had told me at 18 that I’d be in this situation now, I would have laughed at you,” Mack said.

Mack was a part of the Anchorage school district’s gifted program, but she didn’t expect a career in academia after college.

“I just had no aspirations beyond an undergraduate degree,” Mack said. “I didn’t get particularly good grades in high school, like and A, B average certainly not a straight A average like my peers were getting, who did go onto Ivy League schools. I always felt like that probably wasn’t going to be the path for me, but then I got to UAA and did get straight As the entire time and really enjoyed learning. Now that’s what I want to continue to do.”

Mack attended Western Washington University before citing affordability as a top reason to come back to Alaska and attend UAA. Since returning, she has thrived by taking opportunity of a United Nations internship through her Tribes, Nations and Peoples class, she was an intern for Senator Dan Sullivan over the summer and she has been a research assistant for Carnegie Fellow and political science professor, Landry Signé.

Jennifer Stone, associate professor of English, said Mack’s extracurricular involvements are what make her really stand out.

“What’s been really impressive about Samantha [Mack] is she’s taken advantage of everything UAA has to offer her as a student.”

Stone has worked with Mack on several projects, and the two were part of a group that presented at the Alaska Native Studies conference last year.

“I think, for all of us who have worked with Samantha [Mack], it’s so obvious she deserved the award. It’s really incredible that she got it,” Stone said.

Francisco Miranda, associate professor of Spanish, is also the UAA advisor for national and international scholarships.

“I think Samantha [Mack] is proving all of those doubts [about UAA students] unreasonable, absolutely. The other winner of the Rhodes Scholarship from our district, District 14, attended Yale. So of course we compare, quite well,” Miranda said.

Miranda said he wishes more students applied for nationally competitive scholarships, and he hopes Mack will set the example for more students to continue in her footsteps.

“Samantha [Mack] is definitely one of the more worthy candidates that we’ve seen coming through,” Miranda said. “I know that she’s not alone. She’s not a unicorn out there. I’m sure that there are more students out there that just need to see themselves fitting into this kind of profile.”

For students interested in applying to nationally competitive scholarships, both Miranda and Mack recommend planning a semester or more in advanced.