First-generation student is first Chapman Rhodes scholar

Chapman’s first Rhodes Scholar, senior biochemistry and molecular biology major Vidal Arroyo. Photo courtesy of Vidal Arroyo.

Vidal Arroyo was the first member of his family to go to college and is now Chapman’s first student to receive the Rhodes Scholarship. He was one of 32 students chosen for the scholarship from a pool of over 2,500 applications nationwide, according to Rhodes Trust.

Chapman joined the more than 320 American institutions who have had applicants accepted into the highly selective program. Arroyo, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, was one of two winners from District 16, the Los Angeles District, that was compiled of students from top schools such as Stanford and Berkely.

The scholarship covers full expenses for students to study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom for up to four years, relieving financial issues Arroyo has considered a barrier between himself and academics throughout his academic career.

“It’s a blessing, I think it will be the first time I’ll be in an environment where I’m not battling against some barrier,” he said. “I’ll actually be on an equal playing field and feel what that feels like for the first time.”

The Rhodes Scholarship wasn’t even on Arroyo’s radar last spring when he was planning to study in Israel through the Fulbright Program, a U.S. student exchange program that provides individually designed grants. But he was encouraged to apply to other programs in the UK by Julye Bidmead, the Director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs.

Bidmead helps students with scholarships she believes are a good fit for them and the application processes but recommends the Rhodes Scholarship to a select few students, she said.

“It’s a really competitive scholarship,” she said. “I won’t encourage it if they don’t have the credentials.”

Bidmead has been working with Arroyo since his sophomore year and has helped him apply to seven or eight scholarships. Only two or three students from Chapman apply to the Rhodes Scholarship each year, she said.

“He’s a hard worker, self-motivated, and follows through,” Bidmead said about Arroyo. “He has a desire to help other people.”

At Oxford, Arroyo said he will be studying statistics and partnering with faculty in the department who work with genetics through machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, he said.

The past two summers Arroyo spent away from his home in Rancho Santa Margarita researching pediatric cancer at Baylor College of Medicine through funding received from the National Cancer Institute. Arroyo and his team discovered current statistical methods don’t work well with small data sets that are used for analyzing rare diseases, an issue that inspired him to pursue studying the area, he said.

“We worked designing new ways to analyze data so that we can bring the reality of personalized data not just to really common diseases, but also to rare diseases where there’s not as much data to deal with,” Arroyo explained.

After Oxford, he wants to continue pursuing his education with an M.D./Ph.D.

While Arroyo will be studying algorithms, genetics, and statistics, Rhodes scholar Jin Kyu Park plans to use the opportunity to study at Oxford to explore citizenship and membership in American society, he said in an interview with CNN.

Park, a senior at Harvard, is the first undocumented immigrant to receive the Rhodes scholarship, according to Rhodes Trust. Park’s immigration is covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the first year DACA recipients were eligible for the scholarship.

President Donald Trump ordered an end to DACA, first reported by The New York Timesand said he’d phase the program’s protections out on Sept. 5, 2018.

As one of the approximate 700,000 young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children who qualify for DACA, Park is concerned about getting back into the U.S. after traveling to Oxford, he said in an interview with PRI.

“Like everybody else, he’s very deserving of the award,” Arroyo said about Park. “[The program] is going to have to work it out at some level for him.”

Almost half of this year’s winners are immigrants or first-generation Americans, and the majority of the scholars are minorities. In addition, the 21 women who received the scholarship makeup the greatest number of female recipients in a year, according to Rhodes Trust.

The other scholar selected from District 16, in addition to Arroyo, is one of those women: Madison L. Tung in the Air Force Academy. Tung is an acquaintance of Arroyo’s from high school, the two connected through wrestling.

In high school, Arroyo didn’t always have dreams of going to college, but it paid off.

“I’m thankful to have come to Chapman,” Arroyo said. “This was definitely the place for me to be.”

Mari Lundin

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