JACKSON, Mississippi — Millsaps College announced Saturday that senior Ericka M. Wheeler has been named a Rhodes Scholar, becoming the first African-American woman from Mississippi to claim the prestigious honor.
"I'm shocked and overwhelmed right now," Wheeler said by telephone following her finalist interview Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama. "I couldn't believe it when they announced it. I'm still trying to process it."
Wheeler, who grew up in Greenwood and now lives near Carrollton, has been chosen as one of 32 U.S. men and women who will enter Oxford University next fall for postgraduate study. Wheeler, who plans to attend medical school later, said she will study medical anthropology at the English university.
The Rhodes Trust had not yet announced the full list of winners late Saturday for the scholarships, which pay all expenses for two or three years of study.
Wheeler is a double major in English and history who wrote a thesis tracing how police brutality and race have been treated in fiction since the 1930s. She attended Greenwood High School for two years, followed by her junior and senior year at the Mississippi School of Math and Science in Columbus.
Millsaps President Robert Pearigen said Wheeler's devotion to Mississippi's Delta region is part of what makes her special.
"She encountered some of the greatest poverty and starkest racial divisions found in the developed world," Pearigen said in a statement. "She is bound to the place by a sense of duty but is motivated to care for it by a love for its people."
Wheeler said she was inspired to become a physician after watching her grandfather suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Since his death, she's worked with other Alzheimer's patients to write down their life stories, producing documents for their families.
Wheeler credited the impetus for her application to history Professor Robert McElvaine. As a student of McElvaine, Wheeler traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia after her freshman year and to Cuba after her sophomore year.
"I remember him saying the chances weren't very great at all, but it would be good process to go through," Wheeler said. "They didn't want to get my hopes up."
Millsaps said Wheeler would be the sixth student from the Methodist-affiliated college to become a Rhodes Scholar. Spokesman John Sewell said the most recent winner at the college, which has fewer than 1,000 students, was Kenneth Townshend. That 2004 graduate is now special assistant to Pearigen and an assistant professor of political science.
The most recent Mississippi resident to win was Donald "Field" Brown, a 2013 Mississippi State University graduate. Like many colleges, Millsaps grooms candidates for prestigious postgraduate scholarships. Only the University of Mississippi, with 25, has produced more Rhodes Scholars in the Magnolia State.
Rhodes Scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes. Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor. The value of the scholarships averages about $50,000 per year.