Southwest resident Samantha O’Sullivan, a Harvard senior, earned the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Courtesy of the Author.

By Southwest Neighborhood Assembly Education and Scholarship Task Force

Southwest resident Samantha O’Sullivan announced to the world when she was a pigtailed eight-year-old that she intended to be an astronaut. Today, as a college senior, O’Sullivan is one of the 32 American students to receive a 2022 Rhodes Scholarship. After graduation this spring from Harvard University, she will head for London, England to pursue a Ph.D. in Condensed Matter Physics at Oxford University.

In the years between stating her interest in becoming an astronaut to becoming a Rhodes Scholar, O’Sullivan racked up enough accomplishments for a lifetime, including earning a scholarship from the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) Education and Scholarship Task Force (ESTF). She is the daughter of Melody Webb and Steve O’Sullivan of Southwest, and we are proud to have all of them as part of the ESTF family. 

O’Sullivan’s interest in science only grew during her first year at Harvard, when she found her path with support from SWNA. 

“I want to start by thanking SWNA for their ongoing support, financial and otherwise, through my first academic year in college,” O’Sullivan wrote in an email at the time. “My first year at Harvard was one of growth, reflection and new experiences. I learned many skills in the first year of college as well as making new friends, singing with the Kuumba Singers of Harvard, finding community on campus and because I found the coursework more vigorous, I reached out to some of my professors, one of whom was my academic advisor, and a  physics instructor. She connected me to my summer internship at the University of Maryland, as an assistant at the Condensed Matter Physics Lab…which is now my area of study for my Ph.D.  I am immensely grateful to SWNA’s Education and Scholarship Task Force for all the assistance and for making my first year experience possible.”

O’Sullivan is a product of DC schools, including Watkins Montessori School, Capitol Hill Day School and BASIS DC Public Charter School. She graduated high school at DC’s School Without Walls at the top of her class, and also served as class president. O’Sullivan was a Girl Scout from kindergarten through her senior year in high school, and started a club, STEM-UP, to encourage African-American girls’ interest in the sciences, for which she won a Girl Scout Gold Award. In high school, she pitched for the school softball team and had several research assistant positions, internships and summer jobs, including at the Southwest Library. O’Sullivan also devoted 400 hours of volunteer time at the National Air and Space Museum as a tour guide and an “Explainer,” two positions that caught her attention during regular visits to the museum growing up and inspired her to think about becoming an astronaut. 

During her senior year in high school, O’Sullivan was selected to give the keynote address at the Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner at the National Space Club, an event also known as ‘space prom.’ She was nominated for consideration after a nationwide search and earned the honor ahead of 84 other finalists, a list that included graduate students at well-known universities. At the Godard event, it was announced that O’Sullivan had won a $10,000 scholarship funded by Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos. In that same year, she became known to newspaper readers and television news viewers for having been accepted at all eight Ivy League colleges. 

At Harvard, O’Sullivan she majored in Physics and African-American studies. Her enthusiasm for the African-American studies program was a deciding factor in her choice of college, as the African-American Studies program at Harvard is world-renowned. She was fascinated by meeting Black students from around the world and worked to create an on-campus organization to bring together students with a common ancestry. O’Sullivan learned to speak Gullah, (also known as Geechee) a language brought to the United States by enslaved African people and spoken mainly in communities in South Carolina, but whose culture, food and sometimes language is also practiced in several other states in the American South. Learning Gullah inspired her to question why the language of science is English, a topic she is now exploring in her senior thesis.                                                                                                                                  

Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded annually since 1903, with 32 of 100 annual awards going to Americans. Named for and funded by South African industrialist Cecil J. Rhodes, the scholarships were established after his death in 1902. That Rhodes, born in Britain, believed in white supremacy and would never have entertained the concept of Black equality, gave Samantha pause about accepting a Rhodes Scholarship, a concern she expressed at her interview for the award. The first Black Harvard graduate, Alain Locke, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1907 and was well known in DC when he was a Professor at Howard.The first Rhodes Scholarship award to a woman came in 1977. This year, the number of women Rhodes recipients was the highest ever recorded. O’ Sullivan said she ultimately decided that if Rhodes’ money could be used to further the education and well-being of Black people, perhaps it could be considered as reparations.

The title of this article, “We Have a Rhodes Scholar,” came from a comment made by ESTF contributor and supporter Joan Wills to Task Force member Delmar Weathers one morning at their gym. It struck a chord with us and we hope every donor and supporter feels that “we,” and that each recipient is one of our own family. 

Together, we can make sure “our kids” get every opportunity they need to thrive. To contribute to the SWNA ESTF 2022 scholarships, please visit Donations can also be mailed to SWNA at P.O. Box 70131

Washington, DC 20024. Please make checks payable to SWNA and note “Scholarship Fund” in the lower left corner.

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