Fourth-year Machmud Makhmudov immigrated to Atlanta from Uzbekistan as a young boy. His parents didn’t speak English and they had no money, even though they both had graduate degrees in sciences. To support their two sons, his mother worked as a maid in a hotel and his father worked at a liquor store.
Eventually, his parents landed jobs at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta—a turning point in his family’s immigrant story which Makhmudov says is owing to someone who decided to take a chance on them.
On the afternoon of Saturday, November 21, Makhmudov interviewed on the 48th floor of a law firm in midtown Atlanta. From the window, he could see the hotel where his mother worked and the high school he attended in hopes of having a promising future. After the 25-minute interview, he waited in a conference room with a group of equally bright, ambitious undergraduates for three hours while a panel of judges deliberated. When they were called to the lobby, he heard two names announced quickly. He couldn’t believe one of the names he heard: Machmud Makhmudov. Rhodes Scholar.
“I'm still in disbelief. Everybody who interviewed was extremely qualified, and I feel lucky to have been chosen,” he says humbly.
As a Rhodes Scholar, Makhmudov will spend the next two years at Oxford University studying economics, philosophy, and politics. He is one of 32 students chosen from the United States, and he will join an international group chosen from 16 nations. The scholarship, averaging $50,000, pays for all tuition and fees, plus a stipend to cover expenses while in residence in Oxford, as well as vacations and transportation to and from England.
The Rhodes Scholarship is considered “the oldest and best known award for international study, and arguably the most famous academic award available to American college graduates,” says Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust.
For Makhmudov, the Rhodes Scholarship comes on the heels of winning a Harry S. Truman Scholarship last spring. The award is given to college juniors with the intention of pursuing graduate studies in public service.
“I wouldn't have won the Rhodes or the Truman scholarships without being an Oberlin student,” he says. “I came planning to study creative writing and had the vague notion of wanting to help people, but the academic and extracurricular opportunities Oberlin offers really helped me carve a path for myself in public service.”
That path includes a major in politics and a minor in environmental studies. He has served as the head of Oberlin Student Senate since his sophomore year, and he has volunteered as an economics tutor and a teaching assistant in the environmental studies program. He also pitched for the varsity baseball team for three years.
As a Cole Scholar in Oberlin’s politics department, he worked for the office of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and he was a finance intern for the Michelle Nunn for U.S. Senate campaign in Atlanta in summer 2014. Last summer, he served as an intern for the Office of Energy and Climate Change of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
“Being a Cole Scholar and serving on Student Senate were both very formative in the sense that they helped me understand how electoral politics can be used as a tool for social change,” he says. “I was involved in a number of sustainability-related projects through the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, which helped me focus my studies and service on the issue of climate change. I also had a number of mentors—many of whom are professors—who I was able to build close friendships with because they were genuinely invested not only in my development as a student, but as a human being.”
One of those mentors is Michael Parkin, associate professor of politics. “Machmud is certainly an all-around high achiever, but what sets him apart is the depth of his intellect and sense of purpose,” Parkin says. “He thinks carefully about issues and the process needed to make change happen. I think he has started to think more broadly about issues as he nears graduation. He is taking on a wider perspective, and I believe that this will only grow in the years to come.”
Makhmudov will attend Oxford as a graduate student, but he will receive a second bachelor’s degree in the British system. He will use his Truman award to attend law school afterward.
For all that he’s achieved so far, he says he feels a responsibility to give back. “I've grown up understanding that I have opportunities in life because people chose to make sacrifices for me. Going to Oberlin was perfect for me because it helped me channel the raw desire I had to work in public service to concrete opportunities where I could make a difference.”