Robert Mitchell ’74, UND’s most recent Rhodes Scholar, talks about the scholarship, Oxford and how UND students can compete for such awards
Editor’s note: In this Q&A, Mary Martin, a National Scholarship Peer Advisor at UND, talks with Robert Mitchell ’74, UND’s most recent Rhodes Scholar.
The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest (first awarded in 1902) and perhaps most prestigious international scholarship program, enabling outstanding young people from around the world to study at the University of Oxford.
After Oxford, Mitchell earned his law degree at Yale Law School and today is a partner in the K&L Gates law firm in Seattle. He has also served for many years on the Rhodes selection committee for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
A video of the interview is above, and a transcript is below. In the interview, Mitchell talks about the UND experiences and advising that helped him win a Rhodes, his time at Oxford and its impact on his subsequent career, and how today’s UND students can best prepare themselves to compete for high-level scholarships. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
This Q&A first appeared in the NSPS Semesterly Communiqué, the newsletter of the National Scholarship Peer Advisors at UND. For more information about the group or national scholarship opportunities, contact Yee Han Chu, Academic Support and Fellowship Opportunities Coordinator at the University.
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Mary Martin: Hello, and welcome to our scholarship presentation for the Rhodes Scholarship, with Mr. Robert Mitchell.
Before we begin, I’ll just do a quick introduction of myself and Mr. Mitchell. My name is Mary Martin, and I’m a peer advisor with UND’s National Scholarship Peer Advisors group on campus.
With me today, as I mentioned, is Mr. Robert Mitchell, who is a UND alumni. Mr. Mitchell at UND double majored in political science and sociology with a minor in German. He was also part of the Honors program.
And Mr. Mitchell is UND’s most recent Rhodes scholar and attended Oxford, where he read his second bachelor’s degree and then a few years later, he turned that into a Master’s.
Following his time at Oxford, Mr. Mitchell went to Yale Law School and graduated, and then since then has clerked for the Hon. Myron Bright, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, whose chambers were in Fargo. He then moved to Seattle and is now a partner at the K&L Gates law firm.
Thank you so much for being here today! How about we begin by you giving us a little brief introduction about the Rhodes?
‘If you don’t try, you can’t win’
Robert Mitchell: Sure. So I was very fortunate when I was at UND that I had professors and the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Bernard O’Kelly, who encouraged not just me, but others who were doing pretty well in their classes to think about the Rhodes and other postgraduate opportunities.
So they encouraged my friend and roommate to apply for the Rhodes; he did so a year before I did. So it was not anything too unusual to apply, even though the odds of winning are always low.
The theory was, I think, that there was great value in going through the process, not least because it kind of forced you to think about what you wanted to do after you graduated, and what was of most interest to you.
And also because if you don’t try, you can’t win. This is the motto, I think, of our state lottery — if you don’t play, you can’t win — and the odds, frankly, of winning a Rhodes are better than the lottery. So the principle actually applies a lot better to scholarship competitions than it does to games of chance.
The other thing I would say is that if you actually go through the process of applying for a scholarship and the interview that follows it, there are great skills to be learned there that you can apply later in life, and indeed, later in other interviews.
One of my friends at Oxford was, I think, feeling a bit of an inferiority complex because he had won a Rotary Scholarship to attend Oxford, and had applied for but not succeeded in winning a Rhodes. And he confessed one day that he wished that he had not necessarily not gotten the Rotary Scholarship, but certainly thought that the Rhodes would have been better.
And I told him, Well, I applied for the Rotary Scholarship and didn’t get it, had to settle for the Rhodes. And he we both had a good laugh about that.
The bottom line is that going through the process is a useful one, irrespective of outcome. But the outcome can be marvelous. And so it’s worth it to take even a long shot at what could be a transformative experience like that.
Mary Martin: Thank you. That answers my second question, why UND students should apply for the Rhodes. Thank you for that.
You were a Rhodes Scholar. Can you clarify what the difference is between higher education in the U.S. versus the U.K.?
Robert Mitchell: Well, it’s a pretty dramatic difference. And to me, the best part of the educational experience was how gloriously inefficient it was and is.
The tutorial system at Oxford basically is a one-on-one or one-on-two experience with the equivalent of a full professor or a full Endowed Chair-type professor. Because what happens is, you go in — I’m speaking now, up the taught degrees, the second BA and taught masters — you go in and you meet with your tutor once a week, and talk to the tutor for an hour or a bit more about a topic that the tutor had assigned, and you’d gone away and researched in depth and written an essay.
And to me, this was wonderful, because I like to dig into particular topics and have the chance to do that. Lectures and similar kinds of things at Oxford are entirely optional. So you have your time to yourself to go in and read deeply and think deeply about particular subjects, and then write an essay on the subject.
Among other things, that gives you more experience in actually developing arguments and writing, and those are very useful skills as well to have in life.
Then the experience of dealing with the don, as they are called, sometimes wonderfully eccentric characters, one of whose rooms were the same rooms that JRR Tolkien occupied when he was a fellow in the college. So you kind of look around and think about what it was like JRR Tolkien was there.
You know, it’s an incredible experience, because you have this one-on-one interaction with a senior professor, and you’re grappling with issues that are important, and you’re having your thoughts honed and challenged and sometimes encouraged by that caliber of a professor. It’s a pretty heady experience.
Mary Martin: I can imagine; very different than the U.S.!
Another thing: your time at Oxford in going through your second Bachelor’s, which was in PP&E, right?
Robert Mitchell: Correct. Philosophy, politics and economics.
Mary Martin: So, did going through that program at Oxford, did it give you an outside perspective on the US?
Robert Mitchell: I think there’s tremendous value in studying abroad. And that’s true irrespective of whether you’re in the country that shares our common tongue — or as Winston Churchill once quipped, the U.S. and Britain are divided by the common tongue.
But it’s true, wherever you may be, if you get a chance to study abroad, it’s a great experience, both to experience another culture and then to have a different view on our own culture — which, when you are immersed in it, it’s harder to be objective about the things that are important and valuable, and the things that probably are less important or less valuable.
So that, I would say, is a real advantage.
And when I was there, there were organizations — the British Council, among others — that organized trips around Britain for students at Oxford. So you’d get a chance to get out of what is pretty unique environment and get out into the countryside and see beautiful areas like the Lake District or to go to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare performed and where Shakespeare lived — just a great experience.
But the other thing I should mention is the Oxford academic calendar lends itself to all kinds of travel and other experiences because the school year consists of three terms. Michaelmas term in the fall runs for eight weeks. Then there’s six weeks off for Christmas break.
The winter term is called Hilary; that runs for eight weeks. Then you have six weeks off at Easter. And then Trinity term starts after that, and it runs eight weeks. Then you have five months off for what’s called the Long Vac, long vacation.
Now, during this time — these six-week breaks — they’re opportunities to read, and sometimes the Dons asked you to come back and report on what you’ve been reading and so forth.
But you also have opportunities to travel. And everybody I know traveled extensively when they were there, to the extent that their stipend allowed them to do so. And they went all over the world.
I wasn’t quite as adventuresome as that; I did a bike tour of Ireland and traveled to Norway and did some other traveling on the continent and even the Middle East. Others I know went to China and Russia and all over the world. And sometimes, you know, there was an academic reason to do that.
But many times, it was just a chance to experience the world. And it fostered a lifelong interest for me in travel and exploring new areas, in learning things both about them and about myself and my own culture when I was there.
Mary Martin: Definitely. Following the Rhodes and your time at Oxford, you went on to law school, and since then kind of practiced in different areas. How did how did the Rhodes and Oxford shape your career, so to speak?
Robert Mitchell: That’s an interesting question, Mary.
I had the benefit of having a great, strongly academic peer group at UND. And while other members of that group didn’t have the benefit of a two-year stint at Oxford, they did many of the same things.
One of my UND classmates, Linda Peterson, I met when we were both presidential scholars from North Dakota, after graduating from high school. And Linda, after she graduated from UND, unfortunately was not eligible to compete for the Rhodes Scholarships. At that time, they were only open to men; an act of Parliament was passed to change that in the late 70s.
Linda went off to Yale Law School did very well, and ended up practicing at a law firm not dissimilar from mine. And so, had I not gone off to Oxford, I probably would have done many of the same things. career-wise.
But I would say that you’re going to spend decades of your life working, and that getting there faster is not necessarily an advantage.
And I would say as well that, you know, there is a certain instant credibility that comes with having been picked as a Rhodes Scholar, that may not always be justly earned, but it is a reality.
What I would say is that the experience has, to some extent, augmented what my career otherwise would have held. So for example, for the last 20 or so years, I’ve been participating in picking Rhodes Scholars from the Pacific Northwest. And that has given me exposure to colleges and universities throughout the region and their best and brightest students.
That’s been really, really fun to do, and a nice break from the normal, day-to-day practice of law. And it has exposed me to a peer group that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have known. Just before our talk this morning, I was listening to a discussion as part of the Oxford in North American Spring Program, in which three scholars and two business people were discussing artificial intelligence and ethics, and the challenges that our world faces in dealing with the privacy and other implications of pervasive surveillance and artificial intelligence technologies.
The chance to think about those topics decades after I left the university is a great one — again, outside the ordinary, everyday practice of law, which is what puts bread and butter on the table, but it doesn’t necessarily feed the soul in the same way.
How to become a Rhodes Scholar
Mary Martin: Thank you. Lastly, as we wrap this thing up, do you have any words of advice for students who are looking to apply for the Rhodes from UND?
Robert Mitchell: It’s important, I think, for students to be encouraged. So, the kinds of peer mentoring that that you’re doing, Mary and the university is doing to encourage people to apply for and compete for postgraduate fellowships is really important.
But the process of preparing for this actually starts pretty early in your undergraduate career. So there are things that you can do in terms of getting involved in the community, getting involved in extracurricular activities that spark your passions and enable you to develop skills for collaboration and leadership — those are important kinds of things.
And I would say that there is, of course, no substitute for academic excellence, for stretching yourself, and for taking advantage of the opportunities the university gives you to stretch your wings, grow your mind and develop your skills and your passions.
I would also say that if you apply for and compete for other kinds of awards — the Truman, Udall or Goldwater kinds of fellowships — those are often stepping stones to the Rhodes, or to the Marshall, or to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and other kinds of great opportunities. They will sort of build on each other.
So I would encourage people to take whatever steps they can to grow, to develop, to exhibit leadership, to show that they have passions that can be harnessed for collective good.
Those are the kinds of things that make a great difference to interviewers.
In the end, there’s no question that there’s a good deal of luck that enters into what happens in a scholarship interview. You don’t control the kinds of questions you might get asked, some of which might be a soft spot and don’t lend themselves to a home-run kind of answer, and some of which may be completely out of left field, to use a different baseball analogy, and throw you for a loop.
So I would encourage people to practice doing interviews as well — not to develop canned answers, because those can be spotted a mile away, and they’re off putting; but to get a sense of how to deal with questions and parry them or play with them.
Because what people are looking for in part is your ability to hold your own intellectual dialogue with people who may be coming from a very different perspective, and being able to bridge those kinds of gaps and think on your feet and respond.
Those are skills that would stand you in good stead, not just in an interview, and not just at Oxford, but in life.
So, again, the process is worth the effort, even if the outcome is not what one might hope for.
And I would say with respect to that last point, I would dearly love to be no longer known as UND’s most recent Rhodes Scholar. I would very much like to see more people carry on that tradition.
Mary Martin: And with that being said, hopefully talks like this can get students excited and out there applying for different opportunities, because there are a ton — there are a ton.
I just wanted to say thank you again, Mr. Mitchell, for participating in this discussion. And for all of those who tuned in to watch this presentation, I encourage you to visit our UND National Scholarships page. There you can see all of our contact information and all of our upcoming events.