Visions of social justice

UGA's 19th Rhodes scholar, Adam Cureton, earns a trip to Oxford and a chance to create his version of a perfect world

B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R - (A B - '9 3)

Adam Cureton doesn't act like a Rhodes Scholar . . . whatever that means. The son of a career Army dentist, Cureton's laugh is a series of guffaws that become table-slapping, open-mouthed affairs when he's really tickled, which is often. And though he is fond of boisterous tit-for-tat debate, his silence can be just as complete and, frankly, disconcerting—the confluence of youth, brilliance, and poise. Cureton is as comfortable concocting deductive logic scenarios and deliberating evolutionary theories as he is discussing basketball and beer. If the typical image of a Rhodes Scholar is the academic go-getter overworked from scholastic ambitions, Cureton is not it. But it's unlikely that a slick young Bill Clinton, a basketball player like Bill Bradley, and a future folk idol named Kris Kristofferson—all famous Rhodes alums—were stuffed shirts either. Truth is, there's no exact definition of how a Rhodes fellow must behave, research, dynamically converse, or save the world; it's just essential that they do all these things with a polished ease few understand because so few travel to the depths of their own personalities under the kind of vitriolic, academic frontline conditions that the oldest and, debatably, most prestigious international fellowship demands.

Cecil Rhodes so loved his alma mater, Oxford University—founded in 1096—that he left the majority of his fortune for the creation of the Rhodes Scholarship. UGA sent its first Rhodes Scholar to Oxford in 1904, and has had four winners in the past eight years.

"This is not who I am, man," says Cureton, speaking of the attention he's received since learning on Dec. 10 that he had become UGA's 19th Rhodes Scholar and fourth in the last eight years. "I am not the guy who soaks up the spotlight. I am always happiest with my friends and family enjoying the outdoors, playing sports, or hanging out." Cureton, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford, avoids self-promotion, engaging in comedic self-ingratiation whenever the acclaim gets too raucous: "Yep, it's Cureton, pronounced 'Kyer-ah-ton,' anyway you say it, it sounds redneck."

This Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar—who graduates in May with bachelor's degrees in both political theory and evolutionary theory and a master's degree in philosophy—so avoids recognition, in fact, that not until six months ago did he tell professors that he was legally blind. He's had the disability since birth, and he told them of his condition—ocular albinism, in which the retinas lack enough pigment to see distances or details, and judge depth—only because they would learn it from his Rhodes application anyway.

During his entire academic career, Cureton has never seen a teacher's notes on a blackboard, and the total number of unassigned books he read in high school can be counted on two fingers. Regardless of his difficulties, he hesitates to confide in others about his vision because he believes everyone has shortcomings to surmount. This tenet has acted as Cureton's fulcrum of thought for most of his life, manifesting itself recently through philosophic studies and his investigation of "social justice" and how that puzzle might be unscrambled into tangible results for the disabled, whom Cureton works with out of philanthropic fervor and the truest form of empathy: membership.

What Cureton does see, from a distance, are blobs of color. When he's up real close—and wearing the highest strength, five-dollar variety magnifying glasses—he still doesn't make out details well and can only read regular book print for about 15 minutes before getting a headache. Because of this inability to discern detail, his brain adapted to think in broader strokes and he learned to listen with the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory while developing a heightened sense of deductive logic. "Within minutes of the start of a lecture, I will know—and have questions about—what a professor is going to say for the rest of the class without reading the assignment," says Cureton. "It gets harder when you get to the 8000-level classes though." This ability means Cureton hasn't needed to rely on the University's disability services—and, in fact, has enabled him to serve as a monitor and reader for the blind and dyslexic.

Cureton proposes to his girlfriend Julie Rash (BSEd '02) at Sanford Stadium—where they first met. They will be married in Jamaica in May.

The Rhodes Scholarship was first awarded in 1903, a year after British imperialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes (for whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was named) died. Rhodes left much of his $6 million diamond-based fortune to his alma mater, Oxford University (see GM, Sept. 1999), to create two- to three-year fellowships for standout scholars from what would become 18 countries.

The University of Georgia sent its first Rhodes Scholar, Robert Preston Brooks, to Oxford in 1904—the inaugural year Americans were selected for the fellowship. Since, UGA has produced 19 recipients with a proliferation of four between 1996 and 2003. Georgia's recent success is the combination of an enrollment teeming with top-shelf GPA's and SAT's and the teamwork of the Honors program and the prodigies they groom. According to UGA educational program specialist Else Jorgensen, the University starts to identify potential scholarship applicants during their first year on campus.

About 200 first-year students are invited to participate in the Academic Scholarship Identification Program, which schedules seminars led by distinguished faculty, special lectures, and symposia. "For each of the national scholarships," says Jorgensen, "we have a designated faculty representative who chairs the committee selecting campus nominees." All of the mentoring, mock interviews, "mocktail" parties (simulating Rhodes events where judges scrutinize applicants while applicants scrutinize each other), and extra reading are part of a preparation program. "It gives our students the education and skills necessary to be successful in scholarship competitions," she observes. In the process, the students are more than equipped for graduate school and become dream candidates for employers. "After all of the hours you spend with a student over the span of several years, if one does win you feel like it is one of your children who has won the lottery."

"Else was always my biggest fan," says Cureton, who was one of 32 Rhodes Scholars chosen this year from nearly 1,000 U.S. applicants. "She gave me light when things looked their dimmest." Jorgensen guided Cureton, helping him track down recommendation letters and revise his application countless times. And specific to the Rhodes competition, she also gathered "the right people" (more than two dozen) to serve on the practice interviewing committee, which included Rhodes alum and UGA associate vice president for research Eric Dahl. "I think the really important thing about Rhodes interviews at UGA is that they challenge accomplished students to explain themselves to a very attentive, positive, and critical committee of faculty and administrators who have a stake in their success," says Dahl. "You hope that all the students take away something useful in terms of understanding themselves and communicating their purpose. . . . nearly all of them eventually receive significant scholarships of some kind."

Cureton—who chose a UGA Foundation Fellowship over Harvard, Duke, and Emory after graduating from Augusta's Lakeside High School—began preparing in earnest for the Rhodes Scholarship a year ago. After tinkering with his application for "more hours than I can count" and rewriting dozens of essay drafts, Cureton was nominated by UGA and approved by the Tennessee Rhodes committee. (Cureton chose Tennessee because it is his parents' state of residence and to avoid any conflict of interest as both UGA President Michael F. Adams and UGA genetics professor and former Rhodes Scholar Daniel Promislow served on Georgia's Rhodes committee.) From a total of 981 nationwide applicants, state committees trimmed their respective pools down to 12. Then after a cocktail party and state panel interviews, the number was reduced to two, who were sent to the regional level. The process was then repeated for one more round with the competition amplified. After another eggshell interview session, Cureton pretended to be loose, waiting at the Southeast regional locale—Atlanta's Alston and Bird law firm—as judges decided his fate following his last interview. "It was just awful," remembers Cureton. "I wasn't even sure what I had said during the questioning. You're just sitting there in the middle of 10 people—all analyzing you. Finally, at the end of the interview, someone told me that they liked my shoes, and I said, 'Thank you, my girlfriend was up early this morning scrubbing them for me.' It came out wrong, as if I'd made her do it. By the time what I'd said had registered, we were all just sitting there in silence for about 30 seconds. I kept noticing, then avoiding, the face of the panel's feminist theorist."

1,000 plans—One continent

Honor student Josh Woodruff earns UGA's first Marshall in 40 years

Woodruff hones his research skills as Dr. Harry Dailey looks on.

On one day in November, UGA Honors student Josh Woodruff, who will graduate in May with a degree in biochemistry/molecular biology and cellular biology, went from having few specifics about his future to having his path planned through the year 2012. That's because on the same day Woodruff interviewed for and became a deferred Emory medical student, he also earned the first Marshall Scholarship awarded to a Bulldog in almost 40 years. That scholarship will enable him to study two years at the United Kingdom institution of his choice.

"It worked out well because I was able to warm up with the Emory interview and then go to the Marshall interview," says Woodruff. "But I wasn't worried, I always have 1,000 back-up plans." The research Woodruff plans for his Marshall—an award bestowed by the British government in gratitude for assistance offered by the U.S. through the Marshall Plan following World War II—stems from a trip he made to Tanzania in the summer of 2001. While there, he developed a deep concern for the country's disease and suffering. He returned the next year to assist health officials, doing basic things like hanging mosquito/malaria-shielding screen hospital doors. "Do I think I can solve Africa's problems?" he says. "No. But I'd like to help." Woodruff plans to earn a master's degree in immunology of infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He then will return stateside to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in immunology and microbial pathogenesis at Emory.

At UGA, Woodruff worked in the laboratory of Harry Dailey, professor of microbiology and director of the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute. "It is inspiring and satisfying to know that students like Josh choose to attend UGA," says Dailey. "Having students like him in class makes education fun. In my 21 years at UGA, I would rank him as the number-one undergrad I have encountered."

Georgia's other Marshall Scholar, Joseph Harris, chosen in 1965, studied at Cambridge University and is now a chaired professor of English and folklore at Harvard University. When asked what it feels like to earn the sort of academic carte blanche offered by the Marshall, Harris replied, "Well, I don't think one realizes until later that he's been issued carte blanche. I was already committed to a life of scholarship—if only I could make it in that world!—so I think my attitude was rather [more] anxious than self-congratulatory. You know the saying . . . youth is wasted on the young."

Cureton was rewarded for his anxiety, but with that reward comes very real expectations. "The kind of students who win scholarships . . . are those who are passionate about what they do," says Promislow, whose Rhodes years were devoted to graduate zoology studies. "The aim of the application process is to identify people who are going to be leaders some years down the road. I think that 'leading' in the world means making a difference, and it doesn't really matter whether that difference comes about because you teach a young child to read and so change the very local world in which she lives, or . . . you negotiate treaties between warring factions. As long as you do it with passion."

Doctors originally thought Adam Cureton was blind. But even after his condition was deemed to be ocular albinism, it was clear that he would have difficulties with activities other children take for granted. "My father is very egalitarian about things like that and he knew that if someone is viewed as different, the best way to overcome that is to be involved," says Cureton. "When you are a little kid and a baseball lands on your head in the outfield, you don't sit around feeling sorry for yourself, you pick it up and throw back in the direction it came from." The fast-moving sport of racquetball, which he not only participates in but excels at (he is the 2003 UGA intermural racquetball champion), has become a sort of utilitarian analogy for his life. "I just have to work harder at it than most people," says Cureton. "But with time, I've learned from feeling and the angle of a competitor's racquet which direction the ball will take. I know from sound—I could almost shut my eyes and play."

"After all the hours you spend with a student . . . you feel like it is one of your children who has won the lottery."—Else Jorgensen

Cureton listens to a philosophy lecture. The philosophic concept of "social justice," practically reshaped, will be at the center of his doctorate work at Oxford.

Cureton admits having "a chip on my shoulder" that pushes him to prodigious academic heights. In addition to earning three degrees, he has, by the age of 22, co-authored several scholarly publications and presented research papers to academic conferences. As a Foundation Fellow at UGA, he studied in London and Avignon, traveled to Western Europe, Iceland, the Galapagos Islands, and hiked the Great Wall of China. He is a charter member and vice chair of Leadership, Education, and Advocacy for persons with Disabilities and the creator of Together We Are Able, which pairs role model disabled college students with disabled school kids for tutoring.

"I've noticed that disabled people, with the right incentives, are innovative," says Cureton. "But although they have a huge need to congregate, share ideas, and gather to avoid being alone or being labeled, the world is not set up to accommodate them." From the essay that helped him earn a Rhodes, he explains:

"My idea of a perfect society continues to evolve based on my theoretical and practical experiences. In the future I hope to join the faculty of a research university. As a professor, I will continue my research on social justice, teach the importance of open-mindedness, and take part in programs that promote social justice as a practical ideal. I will use all of my abilities to help ensure that a perfect world need not be composed of perfect people."

Just as it takes an entire village to raise a child, it takes an entire university to develop a Rhodes Scholar. Though it's likely that Adam Cureton would have excelled anywhere he studied, the course of events that were set in motion when he came to Athens—concluding with the last Rhodes' panel interview (followed by the shoe scrubbing remark)—might have turned out differently if he hadn't attended UGA. Though all 981 Rhodes candidates are dream students, the final decision as to who gets the Rhodes can be decided with one unfortunate interview moment. "At that level, everyone has equivalent credentials," says Cureton. "My reaction to being selected for a Rhodes Scholarship is disbelief and humility. I immediately reflected on the countless people who helped me along the way, and I thought about how amazing and brilliant the other students were. It comes down to arcane characteristics." But just as importantly, it also comes down to the right institution nurturing the right candidate. "Adam's sharp intellect is paired with bulldog-like persistence," says Clark Wolf, a UGA philosophy professor and Cureton's graduate advisor. "At the University of Georgia, Adam was able to get professors to work with him individually. Of course, this is partly because his talent and drive make him a rewarding and interesting student to work with. But it also shows that first-rate students can get first-rate treatment at the University."

When Cureton flies to England in September, it will begin the next stage in his preparation to "fight the world's fight." And his success in that endeavor at the oldest English-speaking university will depend, as it does for any person, on the confluence of both his abilities and disabilities. Although Cureton believes that if he were born with normal eyesight he would have achieved more by this point in his life, he understands that is not the reality with which he is faced. And the moment after he makes this statement, he dismisses the thought absent-mindedly and again picks up the banner of social justice, and then begins an eloquent description of why he enjoys playing defense on the basketball court. When asked what he'll be like as an old man, he says, "I think I will be as I am now, energized," and then he tilts his head back and guffaws.

"Adam and I are best friends—always have been, always will be," says his brother Scott, a student at the University of Tennessee, who claims that his family makes sure Cureton's head never gets too big from all the success. "It's kind of difficult for me to tell the full extent of how Adam's vision problems have affected him. I do know that his vision has made him stronger. I believe his best quality is an ability to be handed a bad set of cards and make it a winning hand."

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