An outstanding student, deeply engaged on campus, with a passion to do good? The Rhodes committee says 'Hello' to Keon West '06.
Although he's proud to win a Rhodes Scholarship, Keon West '06 says the interview process for the Rhodes was not as grueling as his last three years as a tour guide for the Macalester Admissions Office.
"Walking backwards [as he led the tour and talked about the college], I had parents and students trying to pick me apart," he said with a smile. "I had to think on my feet. I had to come up with something good and honest or there would be real consequences. Compared to that, answering questions while seated in an air-conditioned office [during the Rhodes interview] wasn't that hard."
The soft-spoken, thoughtful West is trying to stay focused on the big picture, but his life is incredibly busy with a myriad of activities and demands in and out of the classroom. And the Rhodes, announced in December, has made things even more hectic.
Besides his tour guide work, West says his academic training at Macalester prepared him in many ways for the Rhodes. "There is a lot of freedom of expression here. My thoughts really mattered. It was not so much people teaching me, but sharing ideas. The way classes are taught here helped me get the Rhodes. You are taught to think critically.
"At Macalester, you are constantly questioning. I like multiculturalism and internationalism. They keep you thinking about other cultures and people, give you new ways to see the world. It's harder to trap someone whose mind has been opened up."
He was part of a group of first-year students in the Pluralism and Unity Program who studied and talked about prejudice and racism. "That helped me win the Rhodes because the committee liked people who are involved, people who have a passion, people who will do some good in the world."
West's plans post-Macalester are pretty clear: two years at Oxford University studying experimental psychology, return to the U.S. to get a Ph.D., then back to Jamaica. But the path to Macalester was never that clear. "I know slightly more about Oxford than I knew about Macalester back then."
The son of two physicians, West assumed he was going to be a doctor, too. "But I broke it off at 16 and decided to pursue psychology. I used to read books on cognition and visual illusions. I realized I could go to the U.S. and study psychology."
He found out about Macalester the way many international students do: from Jimm Crowder, director of international and transfer admissions, who happened to be in Jamaica speaking to high school students. "The atmosphere of the school and the personality came across from Jimm. That's what made me want to apply." He also was admitted to Yale and Wesleyan, "but I really liked Mac and they offered the best financial aid package."
West says, "the entire Minnesota landscape was very alien to me, but I wasn't worried. I liked the weather initially--it was fall after all--but that changed." Orientation for new international students was "a good week of just meeting people from all over, from countries I'd never heard of."
The atmosphere in class was "extremely informal" in contrast to the more traditional style he was accustomed to in Jamaica. Some Macalester students called professors by their first names, a custom he never got used to, particularly when it came to his mentor and academic adviser, psychology Professor Jack Rossmann. "I still don't call him anything but sir," West said.
The respect is mutual. Rossmann describes West as a "wonderful young man, very articulate, very thoughtful. I'm not surprised he won a Rhodes. As soon as I heard he was going to be interviewed, I thought he would get it."
West was once set on becoming a clinical psychologist, but now he's not sure. He is considering research in cognitive psychology and social psychology. He admires the well-regarded book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist, expert on race relations and president of Spelman College in Atlanta.
"I would like to write a book like that someday," West says. "A book that makes a difference."