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Young alum awarded Rhodes Scholarship

For the first time in nearly two decades and the eighth time in school history, a graduate of the school has won a Rhodes Scholarship. Eren Orbey ’14, a senior at Yale University, learned the news on November 17, when he became one of only 32 students chosen for the prestigious award from a national application pool of 880.

Each year, the Rhodes Trust honors the will of British businessman Cecil J. Rhodes by selecting a group of 32 American college students to pursue degrees at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. To apply, students must gain their university’s endorsement, obtain five to eight letters of recommendation, and write a personal statement detailing their interests and intended areas of study at Oxford. Finalists undergo interviews and attend receptions where the winners are announced. The scholarships cover the full cost of degrees the students wish to pursue.

“It’s a huge honor,” Eren said, “but I had so much support in the process—all of my recommenders at Yale, most of my professors, so many of my teachers at BB&N, who prepared me to be the writer I am today. It feels like a very nice mix of luck and hard work, and I am excited to pay it forward however I can.”

Eren said he plans to pursue degrees in history and English literature as a complement to the broader studies he has conducted at Yale, where he has double-majored in English and computer science.

“The themes that I’m interested in writing and reporting about require a greater historical focus,” he said. “I’ve really liked that at college I can take a lot of different classes, but I’m excited to delve deeper into the coursework that I think will bring greater clarity and heft to my writing.”

Eren is already a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, having written well over a dozen pieces for the publication. His first piece (“Mourning Through Horror Movies,” Nov. 22, 2016) details how the genre has helped him cope with trauma he experienced as a young child. At the age of 3, while visiting family in Ankara, Turkey, Eren huddled with his older sister in a closet as an armed intruder shot and killed his father and later held his mother at gunpoint.

Since then, Eren has twice visited the apartment where the invasion took place and has obtained Turkish court and police documents about his father’s death. Now he is writing a senior thesis that deals with the long-term legacy of childhood trauma and reconstructs the chronology of events related to his father’s death. 

It’s a project he would like to develop into a book at Oxford, Eren said.

“What I turn in for my thesis will be more of a reported essay,” Eren said, “and then I would like to spend my time at Oxford gaining the skills and the knowledge that will ultimately help me adapt that piece into a bigger, more universal book project.”

Eren spoke to the value of the school’s English education.

“BB&N’s English education is truly incredible,” he said. “It’s a big privilege to have been able to learn to write with these teachers before even getting to college. It’s an advantage whose benefits I probably won’t truly realize for a long, long time.”

Upper School (US) English Teacher Althea Cranston, Eren’s former advisor and three-time teacher, said she could tell he was a gifted writer from the first piece he turned in as a freshman, a personal essay on the topic of his father’s death.

“I treated him the way I would an older student in approaching his writing,” Ms. Cranston said. “For that piece, I think he was hungry to hear how to make it better and was willing to put in that time to fuss with the littlest things. That made him stand out— the attention he would pay to his writing.”

The piece went on to win a Scholastic Art and Writing gold medal in the spring of 2011. 

Ms. Cranston also noted that Eren’s drive led him to succeed in many areas during high school.

“He has very high standards for himself and for others,” Ms. Cranston said. “He’s so able in so many different areas and drives himself hard to do well and to succeed in all those areas.”

Vanguard Faculty Advisor Allison Kornet, who worked closely with Eren when he served as editor-in-chief of this publication, said Eren texted her the day he got the award, which was also the Saturday before the annual Recent Grads Tea that occurs around Thanksgiving at the US.

“In very uncharacteristic fashion, he did what journalists call ‘burying the lead,’” Ms. Kornet said. “He wrote, ‘Are you going to be at Bucky this week? Is there a coffee?’ and only later came, ‘Also: I won a Rhodes Scholarship today!’”

Eren is a fantastic wordsmith with an excellent sense of how to present news, Ms. Kornet said, recalling the many hours of work he put into managing and editing the paper during weighty reporting years when the community was reacting to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt, and the plane crash that killed Bess Rosenzweig ’o9 in Kenya.

When Eren was at the school, he was known as “Aaron,” a name whose spelling he changed for reasons he details in The New Yorker (“Solving the problem of my Turkish-American name,” Sept. 7, 2017). Eren first wrote the essay about his name change for a Yale class and reviewed it over several email exchanges with Ms. Kornet before pitching it to publishers, she said.

English Department Chair Sharon Krauss, who taught Eren during the fall of his senior year in her Fiction Writing Workshop, said he arrived as an excellent writer who was also a respectful and supportive critic of his fellow classmates’ work.

“He was really fearless on the page,” Ms. Krauss said, adding that he was willing to take risks by trying out new structures and plotlines. 

“Some subject matter that might have been intimidating or deemed too challenging for some other students, he was willing to take on,” she added.

Ms. Krauss said that earning a Rhodes Scholarship is a spectacular feat.

“There are so few [Rhodes scholarships] awarded that to know anybody who wins one is not common,” Ms. Krauss said. “I am thrilled for him, and I think he’s utterly deserving.”

This year, almost half of the scholarship winners are immigrants or first-generation Americans, which Eren—the son of Turkish immigrants—said he was pleased to see.

“In some ways it feels like a big deal,” Eren said, “but also I think it shouldn’t really be that surprising or revelatory that the types of people who win these awards represent all sorts of backgrounds.”

Following his time at Oxford, Eren said, he hopes to continue writing, though he emphasized that he didn’t think writing should be an “exclusive, rarified art form restricted only to those who become critics, journalists, and academics.” 

“I don’t just want to seal myself off and write—I would definitely like to keep up my technical skills,” he said. “I think that so much of our journalism today comes to us through tech platforms, and so I think it’s really incumbent upon journalists to understand how those platforms work.”

Writing is a way of approaching the world, he added.

“It feels like an additional sense,” he said, “and I think it has brought me closer to people and experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have known that much about. That’s a part of it that I really want to hold on to.”

Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead, according to the scholarship’s website. 

Previous graduates of the school who have won the award have gone on to a variety of careers, including Peter Beinart ’89, former editor-in-chief of The New Republic; Sarah E. Light ’91, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and John Tye ’93, a former official at the U.S. State Department.

The last knight to have landed a Rhodes Scholarship was Dr. Olivia Rissland ’00, who founded an RNA research lab, in 2004.

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