Santa Clara University senior is named Rhodes Scholar

By Joe Rodriguez
Mercury News

Noelle Lopez arrived at Santa Clara University almost four years ago with cross-country shoes in her luggage and a list of social problems she'd like to tackle after graduation. But she wasn't sure that studying philosophy would give her the right tools.

On Sunday, however, she found out she won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship — as a philosophy major. She's the first Santa Clara student since 1955 to win the award in its 106-year history.

"I'm still in a little bit of shock,'' the 20-year-old senior said by telephone Sunday from her hometown of Tucson, Ariz.

Created by British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes in 1902, the program rewards scholar-athletes from colleges and universities around the world with scholarships worth about $50,000 a year to study at the University of Oxford in England.

The list of notable American winners includes former basketball star and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley in 1965, President Bill Clinton in 1968 and feminist writer Naomi Wolf in 1985.

Lopez will enroll at Oxford next fall after graduation to further her studies in philosophy, the field she eventually came back to after wandering into political science and psychology.

"I came to believe that knowledge is power," she said, "and I really think it has the power to change people."

Lopez was one of 32 American winners selected from 769 applicants from more than 200 colleges. Other winners with Bay Area ties included Sarah Kleinman, who earned a bachelor's degree in history from Stanford last year and is currently pursuing a master's in sociology there, and Scott Hugo of Alamo, a senior at the University of California-Los Angeles studying history and political science.

Arthur Hull Hayes, who graduated from Santa Clara, won the award in 1955. He went on to become a prominent physician, professor of medicine and a commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Ronald Reagan.

Although an ethnic breakdown of previous Rhodes winners wasn't available, Lopez is believed to be one of few Hispanic women to win the award. She is only two generations removed from Mexican immigrant grandparents who spoke limited English and didn't finish school.

"We're all very proud of her," said her father, Gerry Lopez, an engineer. "We knew from when she was little that she had a special head on her shoulders."

Santa Clara recruited Lopez with a combined academic and athletic financial aid package. All she had to do was heed the school's teaching motto, "Conscience, compassion and competence.''

University officials say she has — and then some.

Her grade-point average is 3.99, missing a perfect 4.0 by getting an A-minus in women's studies during her freshman year. Since then she has won three academic fellowships involving philosophy or social justice issues, including one that took her to the fields of the Salinas Valley to work with migrant farm workers.

"She's very mature, compassionate and thoughtful," said William Greenwalt, a professor in classical history. He also directs the university's honors program, which helps students apply for competitive programs like the Rhodes.

Greenwalt spoke with philosophy instructors about her qualifications. "To a person, they speak of her as one of the best students they have ever had," he said.

Meanwhile, on the track, Lopez impressed her teammates and athletic director Dan Coonan.

"She really was the embodiment of the athlete as scholar," Coonan said. "She's got a big heart and has taken up a lot of causes, from the living wage to human rights."

He said Lopez was a team leader from the minute she strapped on her running shoes, rising to captain of the women's track team. She was a member of the cross-country team that recently finished an impressive third in its conference.

Lopez said her personal best in the 5-kilometer run, a bench mark race for cross-country runners, is 17 minutes, 57 seconds, and that she usually finished in the top three or five runners among her teammates.

She hopes to continue studying her specialty, virtue ethics, at Oxford.

"It's about living a good life," she said. "What are the features of a good person?"