When Rhiana Gunn-Wright walked into the Chicago History Museum as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, she was a bundle of nerves. Despite her stellar educational background (she graduated magna cum laude from Yale, and was at the top of her class at the Illinois Math and Science Academy), there was a moment when she questioned her qualifications. “I had serious doubts about even applying because I didn’t see people who reflected my experience, the places I had come from, the things that I am interested inpursuing,” said Gunn-Wright, who grew up in Englewood.
“My mom wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor. My parents aren’t professional. My great-grandmother was a laundress in Mississippi. I actually struggled to apply because I was like, people like me don’t win awards like this,” she said. But on Sunday, a girl from the ’hood, whose mother never had to “chase” after her to do schoolwork, was among the 32 Americans chosen to become Rhodes Scholars. She will study at Oxford University in England. A day later, Gunn-Wright was juggling interview requests and had even received a congratulatory phone call from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “It is just sort of overwhelming. I haven’t done a lot of interviews, so this certainly feels like a lot . . . but not as many as Beyonce,” she said with a laugh.
Raised by a single mother, who had the help of her own mother, Gunn-Wright’s success defies the negative labels that often stigmatize Englewood residents. “All that stuff does go on, and I remember at times being scared for my safety. But that doesn’t negate the love and support that is there. Both of them exist even though it doesn’t seem like they can exist at the same time,” Gunn-Wright said. “Personally, it makes me sad; one, that the violence is happening. But two, people make Englewood sound like the ‘Seven Circles of Hell,’ and it is not. There are families and friends there, and people still care about each other. There are still honor and sun and light and not always darkness.” Her mother, Karen Gunn, is the founder of a nonprofit youth agency, Urban Solutions. Although the family now lives in Oak Lawn, they resided in Englewood until Rhiana went off to college.
Gunn navigated the public education system to access the best opportunities for her daughter, who was admitted to the Lenart Regional Gifted Center and then the Illinois Math and Science Academy. “When Rhiana was in eighth grade, she completed an application that would help pay for anything in high school — the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship,” Gunn said. “There are only 35 given in the entire country. Rhiana was one of them. I had to access these scholarships because I was working with limited funds.” In her freshman year, Gunn-Wright was accepted into the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a boarding school in Aurora. “She was 14 years old and had to go away. I had to put my feelings aside and give her the best education possible,” Gunn said. The daughter attributes her success in school, in part, to her mother showing her the “bigger picture.” “She would take me downtown to see the lights every Christmas and take me to Cincinnati when she visited a friend from college,” Gunn-Wright recalled. “She wanted me to know the world was much bigger than what I saw around my house.”
Gunn-Wright intends to study comparative social policy when she arrives at Oxford in the fall. Specifically, she wants to compare welfare policies in the U.S. to those in other countries. She thinks U.S. welfare policies end up “punishing” people for being poor. “I want to help make the policy more humane. People aren’t just poor because they are lazy or shiftless,” she said. “How do we structure programs that respect that poverty is something you can get into for any number of reasons, and most of those reasons aren’t under your control?” Despite the life-changing nature of her award, Gunn-Wright sees the honor as a steppingstone. “I want to create policy. I want to do the work,” she said. “This is not the end. This is just the beginning because there is so much work to do.”