Hassen '15 named Dartmouth's 77th Rhodes Scholar
There was a time when Ridwan Hassen ’15, one of five children of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, considered dropping out of high school so he could work full-time to support his family. But he stayed in school, Hassen said, crediting encouragement from an influential statistics teacher. On Saturday, he was named a Rhodes Scholar.
Hassen, of Marietta, Georgia, is Dartmouth’s 77th Rhodes Scholar and the first American to win since Gabrielle Emanuel ’10. Miriam Kilimo ’14 was announced as a Rhodes Scholar earlier this month. Last year, Joseph Singh ’14 and Jonathan Pedde ’14 won the award.
Hassen studies computer science and neuroscience at Dartmouth and plans to study public policy at Oxford University, he said, noting interests in health and education.
“For me it doesn’t seem like a switch,” he said of his academic plans, noting his consistent involvement in mentorship and interest in education policy. “I’ve always been interested in politics, and I’ve been politically active in my community.”
He would also like to continue his studies in neuroscience and computational biology at Oxford, he said.
“I’m just really excited for him,” psychological and brain sciences professor Catherine Cramer said. “He’s going to take great advantage of it.”
Cramer, who taught Hassen in an introductory neuroscience course, praised his curiosity and said he “always has a question that makes you think about the next idea.” Although Cramer only had Hassen in one course, she said they still meet regularly.
In Hanover, Hassen said, he has gained a new appreciation for his hometown. Hassen has long been involved with his community, but since coming to Dartmouth he said he has mentored a growing number of students from minority groups in Georgia who are interested in STEM subjects and has given speeches at his high school.
Hearing about the dreams of the students he mentors inspires him to succeed to set the best possible example, he said.
“One of the main reasons I applied is that a lot of people who come from similar backgrounds as mine think they can’t get it,” Hassen said.
Hassen started college at Emory University, just a short drive from home. There, he founded an AIDS activist organization and was involved with the NAACP, helping coordinate volunteers and run a voter registration drive.
Yet when his sister Halimo Hassen ’17 was applying to Dartmouth, he began to think about transferring. Hassen had started considering the Rhodes Scholarship, and he felt he would be “overlooked” for it at Emory, he said. He transferred to Dartmouth in fall 2013.
When Hassen found out Dartmouth nominated him, he said he began seeing the Rhodes as a serious possibility.
After universities select their nominees, the Rhodes Trust decides which students make it to the final round. The email telling him he was a finalist came five days after he had expected it, but when he read it, he said he “fell to the ground."
"That was one of the happiest moments of my life,” he said.
Hassen spent Saturday interviewing in Georgia with 11 other local finalists. By 6 p.m., the two winners were announced.
When Hassen’s high school statistics teacher, Victor Burrell – the one who convinced him to stay in school – heard that Hassen had indeed won the scholarship, Burrell was so excited he posted two Facebook statuses about it, Hassen said.
“The sky’s the limit for this young man,” Burrell said. “He’s a very humble person, but he’s a very hard worker. He’s one of the most focused young men I’ve ever met.”
Burrell said he helped Hassen because of the promise he saw in him and his siblings, whom he also taught at South Cobb High School.
“I told him, ‘there ain’t no way I’m going to let you drop out of high school,’” Burrell said.
Hassen credited assistant dean of scholarship advising Jessica Smolin with helping him prepare, organizing practice interviews that were harder than the real ones and providing useful feedback, he said.
“I don’t think I would have gotten that at any other institution,” he said.
Smolin said a committee composed of College faculty selected Dartmouth’s nominees, declining to say how many students had applied or how many the College nominated.
“It’s an incredibly competitive process,” she said. “The Rhodes is often seen as one of the most, if not the most, competitive scholarships in the world. It’s very, very prestigious.”
Fellow Rhodes Scholar Kilimo also helped him prepare.
After Hassen learned Kilimo had won the scholarship, he reached out to her asking for advice, Kilimo wrote in an email. They had a two-hour Skype call before his interview where Kilimo shared her experiences.
At Dartmouth, Hassen is an undergraduate advisor in the Choates residence hall, has researched autism at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is involved with the First-Year Student Enrichment Program and is a member of the Dartmouth Endurance Racing Team. His brother Hassan Hassen ’18 recently matriculated.
As a Collis Center manager, Hassen oversees the center’s activities from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on some nights.
“It’s a job that requires a lot of responsibility and maturity,” said Quita Davis, his supervisor at Collis.
Graduate student Heidi Hough, another Collis manager who has worked with Hassen, praised his intellectualism.
“Ridwan is able to hold really big ideas in his mind about everything from spirituality to neuroscience, and he has a very strong understanding of the entire interdisciplinary consciousness,” she said. “He is so humble and so gracious and so thoughtful, he makes everyone feel as if they’re the most special person on earth.”