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OU senior awarded prestigious Rhodes scholarship

Leanne Ho

English literature and social justice senior Leanne Ho poses for a photo Oct. 17. Ho received the Big Non-Binary Person on campus award last year.

“This is going to change my life.”

That’s what English literature and social justice senior Leanne Ho told one of the judges after they found out they had been named a 2020 Rhodes Scholar. 

Each year, only 32 U.S. students are selected as Rhodes Scholars to pursue degrees at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, according to OU’s website. The scholarship is one of the oldest and most celebrated international fellowships in the world, according to the site.

Ho said they plan to attend medical school in the U.S. after their time at Oxford, where they plan to pursue a master's in medical anthropology for one year and a master's in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation for the next year.

“I'm really interested in health care disparities for marginalized populations,” Ho said. “I come from an immigrant background — my parents are Vietnamese refugees. So watching them and also my entire community struggle to access culturally competent healthcare really made an impact on me when I was growing up. I also identify as queer and nonbinary, and the LGBTQ community faces all sorts of health care challenges as well.”

Ho said they hope their experience at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar will prepare them to serve marginalized communities beyond just the medical education required to become a physician.

To become a Rhodes Scholar, Ho first had to receive an endorsement from OU before preparing their application — beyond a personal statement and resume, Ho submitted eight letters of recommendation. Once Ho was selected as a finalist to interview, they traveled to Pasadena, California. Ultimately, Ho was selected as a Rhodes Scholar.

Brian Johnson, OU adviser for nationally competitive scholarships, worked with Ho on a scholarship application last year and worked with them on their Rhodes application as well. Johnson said that though he's relatively new to his current position, he's been at OU since 2005 and has worked with numerous applicants for high-profile scholarships.

"I would say Leanne is as intelligent as anyone I've worked with and as driven as anyone I've worked with at OU. ... I think Leanne exemplifies the best that OU has to offer."

Erin Simpson, director of OU’s Gender + Equality Center, wrote one of Ho’s recommendation letters. Simpson said Ho works with the center as a Step In, Speak Out peer educator, LGBTQ Program Advisory Board chair and LGBTQ program intern.

Simpson said Ho worked last spring to create a guide for transgender and nonbinary students to navigate OU and Norman, collating resources that transgender and nonbinary advocates had worked on in the past and creating an impactful tool for OU students.

“(Ho) did that because they knew it was a need,” Simpson said. “They did that because they knew that they had to navigate (that), and that they had navigated with help. And knew that help had been critical, and that not every student was necessarily seeking out the same level of help. They wanted it to be easy to find for any of our campus community that needed that.”

Along with their work at the center and other efforts, Ho was the first OU student to receive the Big Non-Binary Person on Campus award, which was instrumental in the campus awards name change this fall.

Simpson said she believes Ho can continue their success in advocacy as they work to help marginalized communities in the health care profession in the future.

“One of the things I know they’re passionate about is how health care affirms identities,” Simpson said. “All identities ... The way that we experience healthcare is a sort of one-size-fits-all experience. And one of the things I expect (Ho) to challenge is (whether) that’s sufficient. I imagine one of the things we may see from (Ho) in the future is contributing to that culture of change.”

Simpson said Ho thrives despite the difficulties of being the first and advocating for change.

“(Ho has) done it with such good grace and such care for their campus community,” Simpson said. “I just really value who they are as a person, but also who they are to their fellow OU students, their peers, their colleagues, their campus community members. They’ve really stepped out in many ways that will make it easier for the next person to do so.”

Ho joined just 29 previous OU Rhodes Scholars since the scholarship was created in 1904, according to the site. OU’s most recent Rhodes Scholar was Mubeen Shakir in 2013.

Ho encouraged anyone who might be inspired by their accomplishment, especially members of marginalized communities, to keep striving for success.

“You can do this — you deserve this,” Ho said. “The world is changing, and you have (as much) right as anyone else to seize that change and be successful.”

Scott Kirker is a letters and Spanish senior and assistant news managing editor for The Daily. Previously he worked as summer editor-in-chief and as a news reporter covering research and administrative searches.

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