Michael Lamb: From Rhodes Student to Rhodes Scholar


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Michael Lamb, a senior political science major and American studies minor, is one of 32 American college students selected as a Rhodes scholar-elect.

The announcement was made Nov. 22 by Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust. Lamb will join other scholars at the University of Oxford in England in October 2004 — 100 years after the first Americans were selected as Rhodes scholars. He plans to read for the B.A. in philosophy and theology and has applied to Christ Church College at Oxford. He hopes to receive formal acceptance in early spring.

Lamb was one of 963 applicants endorsed by 366 colleges and universities nationwide. Other candidates from Rhodes College were Erin Hoekstra, Michael Phillips and John Sexton. Lamb will be the college’s seventh alumnus Rhodes Scholar.

“We value the role so many have played in supporting all four of our candidates,” said Rhodes College President William E. Troutt. “Everyone in the Rhodes community is tremendously proud of Michael. He has been an excellent student, taking every advantage of the many opportunities Rhodes has afforded him.”

Rhodes scholar David Alexander ’53, president emeritus of Pomona College, president of Rhodes College 1965-69 and former American secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, says he looks forward to meeting Lamb in Washington, DC, in September at the American secretary’s luncheon for new Rhodes Scholars departing for Oxford.

John Churchill ’71, secretary (president) of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and a Rhodes scholar as well, declared, “I’m very happy to relinquish my title as the college’s ‘last Rhodes scholar.’” Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), a British philanthropist and South African colonialist. The scholarships are the oldest international study awards available to American students and provide two or three years of study at Oxford. Selection is based on high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership and physical vigor.

Michael Lamb came to Memphis from his small family farm in Chapel Hill, TN, armed with those qualities. He also possessed skills learned on the farm like the carpentry he would use to build Habitat houses and a work ethic that wouldn’t quit.

Maintaining a 3.96 grade point average, Lamb serves as president of the Honor Council, of which he has been a member since his first year at the college. He is a student representative to the Board of Trustees and has been president of the Rhodes College chapter of Habitat for Humanity for the last two years. What’s more, his three-page résumé (single-spaced) reveals a list of countless high school-, college- and community-sponsored initiatives for which he has volunteered. It’s Lamb’s devotion to service that helped bring him to the college, and once he was here, let him shine.

Lamb was awarded a Burch Scholarship, now called a Service Scholarship, an intense four-year program that enhances leadership skills through community service. Students learn about — and address through volunteering — such issues as health care, education, civil rights, crime, hunger and homelessness.

“Because I come from a very small town, I hadn’t seen the faces of hunger and homelessness until I came to Memphis,” Lamb says. “With my scholarship, those are the two issues I felt most compelled to address.”

And address them he has. From the beginning, he’s worked in Souper Contact, the student-run soup kitchen at nearby St. John’s United Methodist Church, serving food and providing fellowship to homeless people. He’s tutored students at Snowden Elementary School and participated in the Tex-Mex Border Ministry, the college’s alternative spring break service trip to Reynosa, Mexico. He’s delivered home meals for the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, spent spring break 2001 tutoring and mentoring children in East St. Louis and served as philanthropy co-chairman for Kappa Sigma fraternity.

The list goes on because Michael Lamb and other Rhodes students — 75 to 80 percent of them — are trying to meet these needs through community service.

In addition to his Service Scholarship, Lamb received a competitive Cambridge Scholarship from the college along with others from the National Beta Club (of which he was his high school’s president), National Elks Foundation, Tennessee Daughters of the American Revolution and his local Wal-Mart.

“I knew growing up that I wanted to go to a prestigious school where I could get a good education,” said Lamb, who played varsity baseball and golf in high school, earning All-District honors. “For me, it was always Vanderbilt because I live close to Nashville and I knew people from my high school who had worked hard to get scholarships there. That was my goal. My family couldn’t afford to pay for Vanderbilt, so I knew I’d have to work really hard.”

He visited several Tennessee colleges and universities, then talked to a friend who had gone to Rhodes.

“I visited the Rhodes campus and knew this was it. This was the place for me. The people I met were so friendly, the Admissions Office was so welcoming, the professors were kind and seemed to take a personal interest in students. I didn’t know if I could afford it or not. It was very expensive. When I received the scholarships, I was so excited that you probably could have heard me scream from Middle Tennessee.”

Working hard for those scholarships came naturally to Lamb.

“We live on a small farm, about 80 acres,” he says. “It’s not a ‘full-time’ farm. My father works another job, so we farm mainly at night and on weekends. We have 50 head of beef cattle and raise tobacco and pumpkins. Working on the farm taught me the lesson of hard work, of what it means to work for a goal and work together as a family. The principle of hard work translated from the farm to the baseball field and classroom. I was ready for the city, for a change, when I came to Rhodes. Many friends — students, faculty, and staff — have challenged me and helped shape me. But from where I am now, I can also appreciate how I grew up.”

Political science professor Michael Nelson, Lamb’s academic adviser, says Lamb “is the most remarkable student I ever taught. He combines intellectual brilliance with moral seriousness to an unsurpassed degree. He has a bottomless desire to learn and has developed to the fullest extent the capacity to articulate what he’s learned. It’s not enough for Michael to understand something — he wants to take what he learns and share the benefits of it with others.”

For now, Lamb is intent on “asking more questions and discerning my vocation. I’m really interested in politics, both intellectually and practically,” he says. “I think politics is central to how we live and interact with other people. Seeing issues in the city has motivated me to be more involved and to help create laws and structures to address these issues. Right now, I’m very interested in philosophy and ethics — not just in thinking abstractly, but in applying ethics practically and politically.

“After Oxford I’m considering pursuing a Ph.D. in moral and political philosophy to understand how ethical theories can shed light on contemporary political issues, especially those relating to social and economic justice.

“I want to teach at the college level, but I’m still interested in politics, running for public office, being a public servant. I want to wait a few years and see where my questions lead me. Two years at Oxford will definitely help me discern answers to those questions and many more.”