James K. “Jake” McGraw of Oxford interviews Saturday (Nov. 20) as a finalist for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
A senior in UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College on track to graduate in December, McGraw will participate in rigorous interviews in St. Louis, Mo. The academic distinction is shared by some of the world’s great leaders and intellectuals of the past century.
McGraw is the third UM Rhodes finalist in three years. Shadrack “Shad” Tucker White of Sandersville won the scholarship in 2008.
“It was humbling to go through the same process that many of my personal heroes experienced in the past,” McGraw said. “In ‘North Toward Home,’ Willie Morris talks about his own Rhodes interview in a way that I always identified with as a small-town boy from Mississippi. It’s even more special to me now, having walked in his footsteps.”
The scholarship provides an all-expenses-paid opportunity to study for two years at Oxford University in England, one of the world’s oldest universities. It is the most coveted academic award for American undergraduates.
“Jake McGraw has distinguished himself as one of our most accomplished students,” UM Chancellor Dan Jones said. “Previously, he was a Lott Institute Scholar, Outstanding Economics Student and a Truman Scholar, so we knew he had the intellectual, personal and leadership skills needed to be selected for this honor. Our entire community takes pride in his having been interviewed as a finalist in this year’s Rhodes Scholarship Program.”
McGraw won the Harry S. Truman Scholarship in 2009 and the economics honor earlier last spring. He has studied in London, Edinburgh, France, China, Tanzania and Belize through the UM Study Abroad program and taught English in Morocco.
“Jake McGraw has the clear ability to take the lead in economic research leading to public policy implications,” said Jon Moen, UM chair of economics. “He can frame a good question and follow up on it.”
“A lot of people have talents, but Jake really refined his and has sought every opportunity and challenge he could that would prepare him for leadership in public policy,” said Eric Weber, assistant professor of public policy leadership. “We are all lucky to have someone like him dedicated to service.”
In his endorsement of McGraw for the Rhodes, honors college dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez described him as having “the ability to accomplish complex tasks while remaining true to his vision. Jake is on a path toward truly significant leadership in public arenas for the public good.”
It’s a path that has been instilled in McGraw all his life.
“By far, the most important influences in my life have been my family,” McGraw said. “My parents have always encouraged my goals and ambitions, especially when it comes to education, and they have given me every opportunity to achieve them.”
McGraw entered UM as a Trent Lott Leadership Institute Scholar and an honors college student. Since then, he received Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa honors and was named a Taylor Medalist.
He previously worked as an intern in U.S. Rep. Travis Childers’s office in Washington, D.C., and as an intern in UM’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. He is also co-founder of One Mississippi and the San Mateo Empowerment Project, a nonprofit community development organization n Belize.
After earning bachelor’s degrees in economics and public policy leadership at UM, McGraw hopes to read for the Master of Philosophy in Economic and Social History at Oxford University. Following his time there, he would like to return to Mississippi and work to improve the state’s public schools.
“There are a number of people who have influenced me in that direction. Foremost among them is former Gov. William Winter, who first tackled Mississippi’s entrenched educational inequities with the 1982 Education Reform Act. As a product of Mississippi’s public schools, I count myself among the beneficiaries of his leadership,” McGraw said.
“More than that, Gov. Winter has become a personal friend and hero of mine. His legacy and vision inspire me to continue the work of improving Mississippi’s school system.”
Because he had spent his entire life in Oxford and both of his parents taught at Ole Miss, McGraw wanted to go elsewhere for college. But a few things changed his mind.
“First, the honors college and Lott institute offered as good an education as any school in the country, in addition to unique opportunities to travel and interact with national leaders that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he said.
“Second, I received a level of personal contact from Ole Miss that was unparalleled. Chancellor (Robert) Khayat met with me, as did Dr. Andy Mullins, Dr. John Samonds and many others. Ole Miss made a personal investment in my education that other schools couldn’t match,” he added.
McGraw is the son of UM social work professor Jo Ann O’Quin and retired psychology professor Kenneth McGraw.
“We are most proud of his ability to use his talents in showing a civic commitment to racial, economic and educational inequalities, and that he has a keen sense of concern for others,” his mother said.
Rhodes Scholarships were started after the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902 and bring accomplished students from around the world to the University of Oxford. The first American scholars were elected in 1904, according to the scholarship’s Web site.
Regional committees select 32 American Rhodes Scholars annually from nominees in each state.