The Rhodes Scholarships are the oldest and among the most celebrated international fellowship awards in the world, and Jay Ruckelshaus, a senior at Duke University and a quadriplegic since 2011, is among the 32 American winners for 2016. “I’d heard about the Rhodes for a long time, and admired many public figures who are Rhodes Scholars, but it’s not something you ever really think you would achieve,” says Ruckelhaus, an Indianapolis native majoring in political science with a triple minor in philosophy, history and English.
A Rhodes Scholarship is a full post-graduate scholarship to England’s prestigious Oxford University. Established in 1902, it is intended to promote civic-minded leadership among young people with, as Cecil Rhodes wrote in his 1899 will, the “moral force of character and instincts to lead,” in hopes, as he wrote in a 1901 codicil to his will, of “rendering war impossible” through promoting understanding between the great powers. Some Rhodes Scholars, such as Bill Clinton, have gone on to become heads of state.
Ruckelhaus plans to pursue a master’s degree in political theory while at Oxford. Asking the big questions about the world around him has long been important to him and his spinal cord injury has changed his focus. “It’s caused me to look at the world differently, to examine the architecture of the physical world and the architecture of social relations and discover how some people are marginalized and oppressed,” he says. “I know I’d like to be at the intersection of academia and politics, which is why I’m studying political theory at Oxford,” he says.
Since his injury, Ruckelshaus has become a passionate disability advocate and he founded the nonprofit organization Ramp Less Traveled, which is dedicated to supporting people with spinal cord injuries in their pursuit of higher education. He also is a member of the U.S. International Council on Disability and serves on an advisory board at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center.
During his time at Duke, Ruckelshaus has interned for Indiana Governor Mike Pence, where he researched policy focusing on mental health and the criminal justice system. He also was a research fellow for the American Bar Foundation in Chicago where he investigated the legal history of lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights era.