When 22-year-old Sarah Burns sat down to craft her personal statement essay for her Rhodes Scholar application, she chose to write about failure.
That may seem a surprising topic for a student who this week became the 30th Rhodes Scholar in the history of the University of Kings College. But Sarah understands that failures in life can lead to success — if you are willing to learn from them.
“Although I failed many, many times in my university career and made mistakes all of those were either learning moments for me that helped me do better or they opened a completely new door for me,” says Sarah, originally from Markham, Ont.
When she started her studies with King’s Foundation-Year Programme (FYP), she planned to study Philosophy — a subject, she admits, she struggled with. “I failed to understand almost all of the text we read,” she says. She shifted into Economics, which has led to many opportunities including her current job with the Bank of Canada.
Like many FYP students, much of Sarah’s coursework after completing her first year was at Dalhousie — an example of the longstanding academic partnership between the institutions. Andrea Giusto, assistant professor in the Department of Economics, was one of Sarah's instructors, and he believes her diverse education — from FYP to Economics — has helped her succeed at her current job and will benefit her at Oxford.
“One of her strengths is that she isn’t set in one particular field,” says Dr. Giusto. “[She’s an] organized, determined and attentive student,” he adds.
A global perspective
Sarah cites her parents as her inspiration, examples of resilience through tough times. Both her parents work in the auto industry and when the 2008 recession hit, it was a tough time for their family. Their strength in these difficult times helped Sarah with her own struggles. In her personal statement she also discussed the mental health issues she struggled through after visiting Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“It’s certainly something that always stays with you. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges throughout university,” she says.
Sarah travelled to Rwanda to work with Right to Play, a global organization that uses sports to educate, where she organized an international conference that created discussion on using play and sport for community development and peace. While she was there she was aware of the continued violence and fighting that was taking place in the DRC. This inspired her to switch into Economics so she could help those who she saw suffer from extreme poverty and conflict.
Ian McAllister, a retired professor in the Dalhousie Department of Economics, first met Sarah when she asked to take his graduate class in disaster relief and development. Dr. McAllister says Sarah's international experience enabled her to empathise with different cultures.
“Sarah related very well with all of the students in the class, many of them not from Canada,” he says. “She’s very culturally sensitive in a constructive way. She’s a kind person. She was the only undergraduate in the class and she quickly adjusted very well and fit in nicely. She contributed a lot and just as well as the others.”
Sarah speaks as highly of Dr. McAllister as he speaks of her.
“Dalhousie gave me a wonderful Economics community where I had great professors who supported my research and gave me the tools I needed to do it,” she says, adding she is passionate about “using macro policy to help economic development within the bottom 20 per cent of the global population.”
Leaving an impression
It seems Sarah has left quite the impression on countless people across the Dalhousie and King’s campuses — from the classroom to the basketball court, where she played for the King’s women’s basketball team in her first year.
“She’s the real deal,” says Neil Hooper, director of athletics at King’s. “Her ability to deal with people, to be nice to people, to be very gracious is something we all love about her… There is no one more deserving. She is just a wonderful human being. We are so thrilled for her.”
Sarah was also a Loran Scholar at King’s; the Loran Foundation supports exceptional young Canadians who demonstrate character, service and leadership. She’s thankful for the community of Loran Scholars who have supported her through her undergraduate degree. Two other Loran Scholars who she knows have also been named Rhodes Scholars this year, and she knows several current Loran/Rhodes scholars who are already at Oxford.
Sarah is busy deciding which college within Oxford to attend and is keeping her options open for the future. She says she's very open to different paths.
“Right now I’m working at a policy institution and I love it,” she says. “I could see myself doing more things like this, I could see myself at an international institution, I could see myself running a small NGO.”
So what does a Rhodes Scholar do in her spare time? Somehow between all of her studies she manages to enjoy tasting new craft beers with friends, taking part in a wine-and-book club over Skype with some of her girlfriends and she even plays on three recreational sports teams: two basketball and one volleyball.
Sarah is the perfect example of how you can still have a social life, participate in extracurricular activities and be an excellent academic. So undergrads: if you want to be a Rhodes Scholar, pay attention in class, get a day planner and reach for the stars — and check out some key dates in the new year:
March 9, 2016 - Student Scholarships Information Session
September 7, 2016 - Rhodes Scholarship Information Workshop
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