CHICAGO – A Yale University political science major from suburban Chicago and a University of Chicago chemistry student were among the 32 Americans named Sunday as 2014 Rhodes scholars – one of the world's most prestigious academic honors.
Vinay Nayak, 21 and a senior at Yale, worked on President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and interned at the White House this past summer helping the administration reach out to constituents using Internet technology.
Nayak, of Oak Brook, said in a telephone interview later Sunday that his selection hadn't yet sunk in, adding, "I'm still in a state of shock." ''I feel really humbled, and more than anything, so grateful," he said.
One of his teachers when he attended Hinsdale Central High School called Nayak "a natural-born leader."
"Vinay is probably the most gifted and talented student I have ever had – and this is a very competitive and talented school," said Jessica Hurt, the head of the school's social studies department.
Samuel M. Greene currently studies at the University of Chicago but hails from Spring Green, Wis. Also speaking by phone Sunday, he described his passion for renewal energy technology. He recently spent time in Alaska studying emissions of methane as lake ice thaws in the spring.
Nayak and Greene now share the title of Rhodes scholars with Americans who went on to prominence, including former President Bill Clinton. He won one of the coveted scholarships in the 1960s.
The 2014 winners were selected from 857 applicants according multiple criteria, including academic achievement, personal integrity and leadership. The scholarships provide all expenses for two or three years of study at England's Oxford University.
Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes. The U.S. students will join international scholars from 14 other jurisdictions around the world. Approximately 80 scholars are selected annually.
Greene, who has cerebral palsy, has made climate change one of his focuses. The 21-year-old said he wants to "encourage other people to think about their impact on the environment and how their behavior affects that."
While at Oxford, Nayak said he looks forward to studying how the British political system engages voters. What he learns could help develop better methods of engaging Americans the political process here, he said.
"Every person should have an opportunity to get their voice heard," he said.
Nayak, whose accomplishments include becoming a national oratory champion, has already dabbled in politics. Several years ago he ran an ultimately failed bid for alderman in a district that encompasses Yale, which is in Connecticut.
Nayak's father is Raghuveer Nayak, whose name arose in scandals related to Illinois' now-imprisoned former governor, Rod Blagojevich. During Blagojevich's first corruption trial in 2010, prosecutors said a witness was prepared to testify that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. instructed Nayak to raise campaign money for Blagojevich; the alleged aim was to get the then-governor to appoint Jackson to Obama's vacated Senate seat. Neither Nayak nor Jackson was ever charged in connection to those allegations.