By Marta Lawrence
There’s something in the water at Auburn.
Last year, former swimming and diving captain Jordan Anderson was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. This Saturday, current women’s captain Erica Meissner will interview for her own Rhodes.
Auburn gymnast Krissy Voss is also a finalist for the prestigious award. Auburn is the only Southeastern Conference institution to have three student-athletes as finalists in the last five years. Including Anderson, the school has had four winners.
The Rhodes Scholarship, founded in 1904, is the oldest international fellowships program. Winners are given the opportunity to do graduate work at the University of Oxford in Britain.
Both Meissner and Voss say Anderson’s example gave them the confidence to apply.
“It’s really encouraging when you see your peers and your friends do great things, because you start to believe in yourself because you can see that people just like you are going out and doing great things,” Voss said.
The two women Skyped with Anderson, who is in England completing his studies, to get the inside track on the interview process. Voss and Meissner said Anderson’s encouragement to be themselves was his greatest piece of advice.
Meissner, an honor student who holds a perfect grade-point average in anthropology with a minor in sustainability, is a two-time College Swimming Coaches Association of America scholar and a two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member. She is also one of the top backstroke point scorers for the 2007 national champion Tigers.
She said her success in the classroom can be traced to her time in the pool. “Swimming instilled in me a sense of discipline and accountability, and I’ve been able to carry that into my academics,” she said.
In recent years, swimming and diving coach Brett Hawke has emphasized academics even more. His staff developed a vision statement (“Auburn Swimming and Diving will be academically and athletically aligned for success”), and he asked his coaches to prominently display their diplomas in their offices.
Hawke wrote one of Meissner’s letters of recommendation for the Rhodes, telling the selection committee the personal side of his student-athlete. “She’s just a great person,” he said. “She’s a very caring person. She goes out of her way for other people and she really cares deeply about the team, the people around her and how she’s influencing the people around her.”
Having Rhodes Scholar-level athletes on the team is a nice recruiting tool, Hawke admitted. “People now see that we can do it on both sides, male and female,” he said.
If awarded the Rhodes, Meissner plans to attain two one-year masters degrees in social anthropology and environmental change and management. The proposed academic plan will complement her honors thesis work, which explored community-supported agriculture in a small farm in Alabama.
Voss, a chemistry major with a minor in Spanish, has done extensive research in optometry, exploring chemical structures in the eye. Also an honor student, she has maintained a 3.91 GPA and was named the 2010 SEC Gymnastics Scholar Athlete of the Year. She was a three-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and was named to the National Association of College Gymnastics Coaches Women’s Scholastic All-America team. She also is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.
Last summer, Voss traveled to Ghana where she volunteered with an organization called First Sight, providing glasses and other vision resources to rural areas. She is currently interviewing for medical school, but if she wins the Rhodes, she will defer for two years.
Meissner, who said she struggled in her first mock interview in preparation for Saturday, said it’s been helpful to go through the process with Voss, whom she called a few weeks ago for advice and encouragement. “It’s just nice knowing that I have someone else who can relate to me and can relate to what I’m going through,” she said.
The experience has been surreal for both student-athletes. Voss, who was notified that she was a finalist by e-mail, said she asked her roommate to read her note several times before she felt confident enough to call her parents.
“I never saw the Rhodes as something that would be me because I thought you had to be a Harvard genius to get it,” she said.