Student Leader Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru Named UConn’s First Rhodes Scholar

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru standing in the Student Union. She is UConn's first Rhodes Scholar.
Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR) is the first Rhodes Scholar in UConn's 138-year history. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru, a highly accomplished student leader whose academic achievements have garnered national recognition, has been selected as the University of Connecticut’s first Rhodes Scholar.

Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR), a senior majoring in environmental studies with minors in global studies and urban and community studies, is among 32 people nationwide elected to the American Rhodes Scholar Class of 2020 to continue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in England.

The highly prestigious program counts presidents, ambassadors, business leaders, and many other prominent Americans among its alumni, and is among the world’s most selective academic programs. It announced its 2020 class late Saturday, making special note of Gatheru’s achievement as UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar.

“As I reflect on my journey, it is extremely clear to me that my accomplishments – my story – is not my own,” she said Sunday. “I stand on the sturdy shoulders of the many people that have supported me along the way. My family, my mentors, and friends. The Rhodes application is particularly strenuous, with a total of eight letters of recommendation required. So I quite literally would have not been in this position if I didn’t have professors and mentors who believed in me. And I am so thankful for them.”

Gatheru’s academic and service endeavors had been widely recognized even before the Rhodes Scholar announcement. She was a 2019 Truman Scholar and a 2019 Udall Scholar, the first student in UConn’s history to win those illustrious honors in the same year. She has also received several other prominent plaudits during her time as a UConn student, including the McCullough Leadership award, the University’s highest student leadership award.

“Wawa is a rare talent who in her three years at UConn has built a legacy that will endure long after she has graduated,” President Thomas C. Katsouleas said. “She has demonstrated not only a superior intellect, but a depth of character and an unbridled energy that compel her to take action. In addition to being academically gifted, she has played a leading role on critical issues, including environmental sustainability, the inclusiveness of our environment, and food insecurity on our campuses and in our state.

“Please join me in congratulating Wawa and in wishing her all the best during her time studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar,” he said in an announcement about her honor to the UConn community. “We are incredibly happy for her and so proud that she is a Husky!”

Gatheru, who is from Pomfret, Conn., says she plans to pursue a public service career that empowers and supports culturally competent, community-based environmental solutions — particularly focusing on centering the expertise of frontline communities of color.

“The environmental movement is at a crucial crossroads. We have only 12 years to create climate policy that works to both decarbonize our economy and center equity. I want to help make that happen,” she said.

At Oxford, Gatheru proposes to pursue dual master’s degrees in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance and Evidence-based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. While there, she wants to research overlooked barriers that prevent people of color from participating in the environmental field.

She aspires to eventually run for Congress, perhaps becoming the first black congresswoman from Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District, she said, and added that studying at Oxford represents the next step in her goal to uplift the voices of those most adversely impacted by environmental inequities.

This year’s American Rhodes Scholar Class comprises 32 students who commence their studies at Oxford starting in October 2020. Gatheru and her counterparts were selected from a pool of 963 applicants nominated by their colleges and universities, and who were then narrowed down to a smaller group of students who went through a rigorous interview process.

Applicants are selected based on academic excellence; ambition to make a strong difference in the world, including through working collaboratively with others; great personal energy; a proven commitment to service and concern for others’ welfare; and similar attributes.

Gatheru, who is also an accomplished singer, is the proud daughter of two Kenyan immigrants and grew up in Pomfret before spending a year in Thailand as a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Scholar of the U.S. State Department. That experience, which she completed just before entering UConn, solidified her commitment to culturally competent conservation.

She has completed internships with the City of Hartford’s Office of Sustainability, the Sierra Club, and the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network.

On campus, Gatheru also served as vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and as the student co-chair of the 2019 University-wide Metanoia, pursuing the theme of “Youth for Change.”

As co-founder of the UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE), she helped launch the first assessment of food insecurity on a public institution of higher education in the state. UCAFE’s research has since been cited by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and referenced in the creation of both state and federal legislation.

Gatheru is a 2018 UC Santa Cruz Doris Duke Conservation Scholar and a 2018 Newman Civic Fellow, and is motivated to connect grassroots movements to institutions of power. She was a lead organizer in Connecticut’s first Youth Climate Lobby Day, a United Nations Global Health Fellow, a delegate at the 2017 U.N. Climate Change Discussions, a founding member of the President’s Council on Race and Diversity at UConn, and played a critical role in the successful implementation of UConn’s environmental literacy general education requirement.

She has also mentored students as a teaching assistant in the African American Cultural Center, served as a peer research ambassador at the Office of Undergraduate Research, and interned at the Office of Sustainability. She currently serves as the vice president of the Student Union Board of Governors (SUBOG) and as a student programmer at the Native American Cultural Programs.

As a leader of the campus environmental movement, Gatheru also spearheaded the recent “Ban the Bottle” campaign, which resulted in the removal of bottled water from several retail locations on campus.

“While I have the great fortune of working with extremely talented and accomplished students every day, I could not endorse a nomination for the Rhodes Scholarship more enthusiastically than I endorse hers,” Katsouleas wrote in the University’s endorsement letter to the Rhodes Trust earlier this year.

“She is in constant motion, and yet she remains one of the most thoughtful and composed young people I have met,” he said in describing her many achievements, also noting that Gatheru’s academic record is impeccable.

She maintains a high GPA in her interdisciplinary major of environmental sciences, he said, and added she “is a decorated student on track to graduate with highest honors and (is) prepared to excel in the best graduate programs in the world.”

Gatheru said she was stunned to hear her name announced Saturday as one of the newest Rhodes Scholars: “It felt surreal. I still haven’t been able to shake the sense of disbelief,” she said Sunday.

Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said in Saturday night’s announcement that this year’s Rhodes Scholars will study a wide range of fields at Oxford including humanities and the social, biological, and physical sciences.

“They are leaders already, and we expect their impact to expand exponentially over the course of their public-spirited careers,” he said.

Gerson also has a UConn connection: His parents, Elizabeth Shanley and Louis Gerson, were UConn graduates, and his father was a professor and longtime head of the political science department.

Gerson, who grew up in Storrs and attended E.O. Smith High School, told Katsouleas in his notification letter Saturday that he was “thrilled” to hear the news from the selection committee that Gatheru is among this year’s class of Rhodes Scholars, saying he holds UConn “in enormous regard, objectively and emotionally.”

Gatheru and the other 31 Rhodes Scholars chosen from the United States will join an international group of Scholars chosen from 23 other jurisdictions (more than 60 countries) around the world, and for the second year, two Scholars from any country in the world without its own Scholarship.

The Rhodes Trust pays all college and university fees, provides a stipend to cover necessary expenses while in residence in Oxford as well as during vacations, and transportation to and from England, according to the Trust’s announcement. The total value of the Scholarship averages approximately $70,000 per year in U.S. dollars, and up to as much as approximately $250,000 for Scholars who remain at Oxford for four years in certain departments.