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Our Rock Star

Kentucky’s latest Rhodes Scholar Monica Marks is a shining example of UofL’s vigorous outreach into the state

This past November, Monica Marks was driving south through the flat, seemingly endless farmland along Interstate 65 from Indianapolis back to Louisville. The 2009 University of Louisville graduate had been selected to receive the Rhodes Scholarship and an information packet titled “2010 Rhodes Scholar Elect Materials” sat on the passenger seat.

“I kept on glancing over at this thing thinking, ‘Is this me?’ ” Marks recalls, with a laugh. UofL President James Ramsey was calling Marks “our rock star” long before her remarkable selection as one of this year’s 32 winners of a Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most prestigious award in academia. She is the fourth UofL graduate and the school’s first female Rhodes recipient, according to the scholarship’s website.

monica marksJudges selected Marks after a final round of interviews Nov. 21 in Indianapolis. One of those judges credited Marks with giving the best interview she had seen in her years of rating Rhodes candidates.

Why is her selection remarkable?

Marks grew up in Rush, Ky.—a small town near Ashland—and came to UofL from a humble family background. Her father, Jesse Marks, owns a small business that sells janitorial products. Neither parent graduated from high school.

“College wasn’t assumed as it is in many families [where the idea is], ‘Well, of course, you’re going to college!’ ” Marks says. “That wasn’t the discussion in my family. It was whether or not you are going to college.”

Also, her family’s religious beliefs discourage pursuit of a college degree.

“I was a first-generation college student from an undereducated part of our state and our country, growing up in a religious fundamentalist environment,” Marks says. “So there were different factors that you could say were working against me.

“But at the same time, I had a lot of support from my father and from my teachers and mentors within the community.”

Jesse Marks went against his church’s teachings and supplied his inquisitive daughter with plenty of books. “My father and I always had an amazing relationship with mutual support,” she says. “And I think it really speaks to the parent’s role of directly, hands-on raising their children to be defined by opportunities and positive prospects rather than by fears. Parents have a choice to let their children leave and study abroad and read many different books and engage all different sorts of ideas and really think open-mindedly.”

When she graduated from Russell Independent High School in 2004, Marks wanted to go to the University of Chicago, Columbia University or NYU but couldn’t afford any of those schools. UofL, which offered her a generous financial package, was her “back up plan.”

Plan B worked out pretty well.

“The University of Louisville blew all of my expectations out of the water,” Marks says. “The friends I’ve made, the professors who’ve mentored me, the personal attention, the support system—it was the best decision I ever made.”

At UofL Marks blazed new trails. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she traveled the world, mastered new languages, founded and coached the university’s Intercollegiate Quiz Bowl Team and won highly coveted awards and scholarships, including a Fulbright, a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. State Department and the Mary Churchill Humphrey Scholarship from the UofL College of Arts and Sciences. Marks graduated from UofL last May with a combined major in political science, women’s and gender studies, and philosophy.

“It has been like a family,” she says of UofL. “Every time I go back, it feels like I’m coming home in many ways. My professors and mentors have become some of my best friends, quite honestly. I genuinely love a lot of them.”

Marks pauses and sighs before she continues: “There have been so many people at this university who have stepped out for me without anything to gain from me. They have been generous enough to recognize the potential in me and do their part to make these dreams realities.”

Her Rhodes Scholarship will allow her to spend two years at the University of Oxford in England pursuing a master of philosophy degree in modern Middle Eastern studies. She hopes someday to help break down the barriers of misunderstanding between Muslims and other religions and cultures.

For now, however, Marks hopes that being a Rhodes Scholar will send a message to other young women from eastern Kentucky.

“There are no excuses for staying put and not performing,” she says. “Being a first generation college student is not an excuse. Poverty is not an excuse. Religion is not an excuse.”

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