Nancy Ko: Long and Winding Rhodes

Courtesy of Nancy Ko

While science, mathematics, and the humanities are present in every aspect of our daily lives, few people come across subjects like Jewish history. It is even rarer for non-Jewish people to be exposed to this field. Nevertheless, Nancy Ko (‘13) found herself captivated by the story of the Jewish people and their diaspora. This unusual and unlikely combination became a recipe for success for Ko when she was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship on November 19.

The Rhodes Scholarship is a prestigious award which gives 32 postgraduate students from 16 regions in the U.S., as well as over 90 other students from the rest of the world, the opportunity to study at Oxford University for two years. Applicants need to submit a personal essay and a letter of recommendation before they are considered for an interview, and even if they reach this point, applicants still need to be outstanding to become a Scholar. “[President] Barack Obama was a finalist, but did not receive the Rhodes,” Ko said.

Ko, who has been pursuing studies in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, will build on her existing work by taking courses in Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Turkish at Oxford.

First of all, I felt deeply humbled. These finalists were some of the most sensitive, interesting, and determined people I had ever met,” Ko said in an e-mail interview. “I also felt a good deal of both relief and responsibility: on the one hand, I now had […] post-college plans; on the other, these plans put me and the other Scholars in a unique position to do good in the world.”

Into the Promised Land

The road to acceptance began with Ko’s interest in Jewish people. Because of her childhood in Brooklyn as the daughter of two immigrants, Ko feels her curiosity is natural. “I grew up in Bensonhurst at a time when a lot of my parents’ customers were secular, post-Soviet Jews […] nearby is Borough Park, a heavily orthodox, Hasidic neighborhood, ” Ko said. “I grew up both acutely aware of how ‘Jewishness’ could mean vastly different things to different people and the ways in which Jewish narratives of diaspora […] related to my family’s own immigrant experience.”

Ko pursued her interest in Stuyvesant by taking social studies teacher Robert Sandler’s Jewish History Class, but it wasn’t until she was introduced to the story of Middle Eastern Jews in college that she became fully invested in this course of study. “My freshman year, I knew I wanted to pursue Jewish History and thus study Modern Hebrew or Russian. I chose Modern Hebrew, which met at 10 a.m., because the Elementary Russian class met at 9 a.m., and I overslept,” Ko said.

That mistake ended up shaping her life. That day, Almog Behar, an Israeli poet, was invited to share his poem about life as an Iraqi Jew living in Israel. Middle Eastern Jews, or Mizrahi Jews, tend to speak Arabic over Hebrew—a language often associated with Judaism.

As Behar told his story of being shunned because of his appearance and his dialect, Ko was captivated. “I had never read poetry that felt so close to me,” she said. “Pieces of my childhood were flung back into my face, memories of kids teasing me, insisting I didn’t know English even though I was born in Staten Island, even though I had read Jane Eyre and they hadn’t.”

Ko’s journey to understand the Jews of the Middle East took her to Israel that summer. “While walking the Old City of Jerusalem, I tried to strike up a conversation with a stall keeper selling spices, to practice my Hebrew,” Ko said. “He grimaced. Thinking this was because I had been unclear, I persisted until with a pained expression he said, in English, ‘Please don’t use that language. Please speak English.’”

Although Ko was initially confused, the encounter gave her a new perspective on the subtleties involved with studying the Jewish people. “I had not considered that for this Palestinian shopkeeper, my use of Hebrew seemed like a taunt. He asked me to speak English not to demean me, but to restore his own dignity,” Ko said. “In that tiny spice stall in Jerusalem, I realized that a sensitive study of modern Jewish history […] would be impossible without acknowledging the realities of occupation and the communities it marginalized. And such a task would be inconceivable without the Arabic language.”

Moved by her encounter, Ko began studying Arabic. In the winter of the following semester, she returned to Israel, determined to confront the apparent alienation of Palestinians in Israeli society. But once again, her perspective shifted after a visit to the small town of Arad in the middle of the Israeli desert. In Arad, Ko met an Iranian-Jewish woman who showed her a photograph taken by an Israeli artist named Meir Gal. The photo showed a 400 page Israeli history textbook out of which only nine pages mentioned Middle Eastern Jews or Mizrahi Jews.

“That image could not leave me. The photograph highlighted a disparity that Behar had touched upon in his poetry: though more than half of Israel’s Jews are of Arab or other non-European descent, the public discourse continues to be dominated by a conception of Jewishness that excludes them,” Ko said.

Ko returned to the United States to continue her research and do her part to confront misconceptions about Jewish culture. “I think the historian’s most noble job is to unfix the fixed notions of the present,” Ko said.

Climbing the Ivory Tower

For Ko, the application process for the Rhodes Scholarship started in the spring of her junior year at Harvard. At first, the thought of applying to the scholarship was unappealing to her, mostly because it would be emotionally draining to try and convince the judges she was a suitable candidate, and her chances of getting in seemed to be low. Yet, she also wanted to make a difference in the world and “fight the world’s fight.”

Ko also saw the Rhodes Scholarship as an opportunity to gauge her potential and decide what her role in the world would be. “I concluded that, regardless of the results, such a personal excavation—How do I see the world? How do I see the world changing? And what is my role in helping to change it?—would be well worth it,” Ko said.

But she would learn that the application process would be harder than she had expected. When Ko spoke with her advisor, she was discouraged from applying because she did not seem like a Rhodes scholar. “This advisor—without knowing anything about me beyond what he could see—told me that scholarships like the Rhodes were ‘really only’ for people who could be potential leaders in their field,” Ko said. She explained that because she was an Asian woman, she was considered by her advisor to be unlikely to convince the judges that she was Scholar material.

Nevertheless, Ko was determined to make a difference in the world. She was able to overcome her advisors’ skepticism once she convinced them to look at her essay drafts. “I had to assert myself, to trust in my own potential, rather than wait for someone else to affirm it. Sometimes no one will affirm you. That doesn’t mean they’re right,” Ko said.

The issues that Ko faced before applying to the scholarship are, in her mind, issues present in all aspects of the academic world. “The race and gender issues I faced in the Rhodes process are no different than the ones we always face getting to this point,” Ko said. “In the East Coast ivory tower, they often come in the form of unintentional, but consequential, abrasions.”

Though the rest of the application was relatively straightforward, Ko’s stress was finally relieved on November 20 when she joined the Rhodes Class of 2017.

The Next Chapter

For Ko, the scholarship represents an opportunity to work with and learn from fellow scholars and some of the brightest minds in the world of academia. “The most valuable aspect of my college career has been the people I’ve met on campus and abroad; consequently, at Oxford, I’m most excited about interacting with the other Scholars and with the Oxford community and learning about questions I never would even think to ask, problems I couldn’t even imagine existed,” Ko said.  

The scholarship will also give Ko a chance to make her own efforts to reform the academic world and broaden its horizons. She mentioned how there were many incorrect notions that even the most scholarly of people believe, describing President Barack Obama’s statement in his final State of the Union address, where he said the conflicts in the Middle East had ancient roots.

Ko woefully disagrees, and she feels many historians can do much more to spread knowledge to the general public. “I don’t think a historian’s task of recuperation, of reversing historical amnesia, is complete until she pushes her research into the public. There is so much amazing, valuable knowledge out there, but it’s sitting behind pay walls and in academic journals,” Ko said. “I think it’s condescending to think the public isn’t interested in that knowledge. We just have to communicate it.”

In turn, Ko expects the scholarship to help her become a better historian. “As a Scholar, I hope to live in humility and courage, to constantly be insecure in my knowledge yet steadfast in my values,” Ko said.

Most importantly, however, Ko wants to enjoy the next two years as much as possible. “I look forward to gaining life-long friends, life-long wisdom, and two years of a normal sleep cycle,” Ko said.

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