Laurence Deschamps-Laporte, 25, has focused on how Islamic social movements form since receiving a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in 2010.
“I came home that day, and I told my mom, ‘Oh my God, Mom. I didn’t get it,’” Laurence Deschamps-Laporte said, remembering the day in November 2010 that would change the course of her life. “I was so nervous.” She later answered a phone call, thinking she was about to be rejected.
It’s a story that deceptively begins as a tale of disappointment. That is, until she gets to the part about becoming a Rhodes scholar.
“All of the interviewers were on the phone, and they told me I got it,” said the now 25-year-old, second-year graduate student at the University of Oxford.
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And they said, ‘Yes, why do you sound so surprised?’”
Surprising news, certainly — but she heard it correctly. Deschamps-Laporte was selected along with S. Paul Shorkey, Jr. as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s 46th and 47th Rhodes scholars. With humility and grace, Deschamps-Laporte described the ensuing weeks that brought an outpouring of joy and support for the Repentigny, Quebec native.
“My family and friends were really, really proud of me,” she said. “For my siblings, it was a little too much attention on me, perhaps, because [my selection] was in the papers and everything. They were proud of me, but your family is there to remind you of who you are and remind you to not get too self-absorbed.”
But it’s hard to fault Deschamps-Laporte for becoming aloof after winning the Rhodes. The scholarship provides full tuition and fees for two to three years of study at Oxford, the first university in the English-speaking world. Each year, after applicants submit a 1,000-word personal statement and eight letters of recommendation, 83 winners are selected from around the world.
When Deschamps-Laporte returned to the brick-laid sidewalks of UNC-Chapel Hill in late November 2010, she encountered an interesting paradigm. The Rhodes scholarship is prestigious in her native Canada, but it has nearly astronomical status in the U.S. — a distinction that reminded her of the rarity of her accomplishment.
“The Rhodes scholarship is famous in Canada, but it’s a bit more mythical in the U.S.,” she said. “Then it really hits you.”
“The scholarship is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “But it also comes with high expectations. If you say something dumb in class, it’s like, ‘Oh, the Rhodes scholar said that.’”
But these moments seem to be blips on Deschamps-Laporte’s radar. Her studies and activities at UNC were diverse. She majored in international studies, minored in Islamic studies, ran half-marathons, enjoyed painting, studied fashion design, learned Arabic and traveled to Syria and Uganda. She reveres UNC as the “special and uncommon” place that was instrumental in shaping who she is today.
“The relationships I built in my undergrad [career] at UNC — even though I love Oxford — I always go back to these people. We’ve edited each other’s essays. We were involved with a lot of organizations,” she said. “UNC has such a lively campus that allows you to foster these relationships that make who you are in the end.”
And who has Deschamps-Laporte become? There are many conceivable answers. As a Rhodes scholar, her research focuses on how social movements form, specifically Islamic movements in Egypt.
“If I didn’t have this scholarship, I wouldn’t be at this university with such great faculty support for this project,” she said. “It allows me to further develop everything I want to do.”
During what could be her final months at Oxford, she will continue to grow amidst the global community of her fellow Rhodes scholars.
“The Rhodes is an incredible community because you’re surrounded by inspiring people from around the world — civil rights activists from South Africa, cancer researchers from India,” she said. “These are the people you’re hanging out with all the time. This is what influences you.”
In June, she will graduate with an M.Phil. (two-year master’s degree) in international development. She may go on to pursue a D.Phil. (PhD) or a career in international relations. Her plans, she said, are “in the works.”
Although Deschamps-Laporte hasn’t decided what she’ll do after graduation, we might be able to wager a guess — just by asking her what opportunity she believes is slightly out of reach.
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