Rhodes Scholar and DCPS alumna Samantha O'Sullivan (Courtesy photo)
Rhodes Scholar and DCPS alumna Samantha O'Sullivan (Courtesy photo)

Years before becoming a Rhodes Scholar, Samantha O’Sullivan fostered a love for math and science at BASIS DC Public Charter School and School Without Walls. At both schools, she encountered several adults, including her teacher Edward Ismail and counselor Hafsatu Iro, who encouraged her immersion in the coursework.  

As she embarks on the next leg of her journey to becoming a research physicist, O’Sullivan continues to reflect on those experiences and a unique District upbringing that inspired a period of academic growth and activism at one of the nation’s most exclusive higher education institutions. 

“BASIS DC Public Charter School is very rigorous in math and science education; that school built my confidence in those skills and made me feel like I could achieve anything,” said O’Sullivan, a senior who majors in physics and African-American studies at Harvard University. 

“When I got to School Without Walls, I took advantage of the multivariable calculus and linear algebra courses at George Washington University. Those opportunities boosted my interest in physics at Harvard,” she added. 

The Rhodes Scholarship, named after British mining magnate and colonial leader Cecil Rhodes, allows students from across the world to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in the field of their choice. Founded in 1902, it’s the oldest postgraduate scholarship in the world and one of the most coveted.  

The 2022 class represents more than 60 countries. 

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Rhodes Trust announced O’Sullivan and 31 other people from the U.S. as the newest, and most diverse, class of Rhodes Scholars from the United States. O’Sullivan and her peers received endorsements from their college or university. They also navigated a lengthy application process in which they had to demonstrate a propensity for academic achievement, social change and collaboration. 

After matriculating to Harvard in 2018, O’Sullivan founded and led an African-American student organization with the guidance of historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. She also published articles on slave codes and bias against young Black women. O’Sullivan’s research about plasma physics and astrophysics briefly took her to Princeton and Carnegie Institute of Astrophysics respectively. 

At Oxford, O’Sullivan plans to study condensed matter physics and attempt to figure out how to channel efficient energy sources. She also expressed enthusiasm about building relationships within Oxford’s global Black community.  

“If there’s a Black student presence, it will be international,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m excited to go to Oxford with my class of scholars [and] explore the options, even if it’s far away.” 

Another aspect of O’Sullivan’s academic experience involved the Carolinas, the home of Gullah Geechee language and culture. Since the fall of 2019, O’Sullivan has expanded her knowledge of that world as part of an effort to better understand how language connects to people’s perception of the physical universe.  

O’Sullivan’s Gullah language instructor, Sunn m’Cheaux, said he respects how O’Sullivan highlighted a discipline that’s rarely explored in academic spaces. As a person who wrote a recommendation letter on O’Sullivan’s behalf, he not only knew about her endeavor early on but fervently cheered her on from the sidelines. 

“Samantha expressed her ambition, goals and ideas and involved me in some of those,” m’Cheaux said. “I developed a trust for her intuition and idea about what should be next [in her career.] I hope that what she saw for herself would come to fruition on her terms. I’m confident it would be positive because that’s her energy.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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