White House Fellows: The New Rhodes Scholars - OZY | A Modern Media Company
President Barack Obama talks with the 2011-2012 White House Fellows in the Oval Office, March 12, 2012.
SourcePete Souza/White House


The fastest way into the bloodstream of the nation’s power brokers is to inject yourself directly.

Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

CEO and co-founder of OZY

If you’re a young, elite striver, the new sexy after getting your Ivy League degree is no longer being a Rhodes scholar. In days of yore (or for almost a century), the most coveted prize in Western society was Cecil Rhodes’ all-expense-paid trip to Oxford. Bill Clinton and Rachel Maddow are probably today’s most famous recipients.

But while the Rhodes is still highly desired, quietly but surely a new prize has become the belle of the ball: the White House Fellowship. Launched almost 50 years ago by President Johnson, the fellowship began to gain some public luster in the late 1980s as Colin Powell, Tom Johnson (former head of CNN) and several of its recipients ascended to prime-time positions.

If the Rhodes is a cobblestone alley weaving its way to Elitesville, then the White House Fellowship is an express train to downtown.

What does the White House Fellowship offer that prestigious scholarships like the Rhodes can’t? It’s simple: a backstage pass to the corridors of power in the nation’s capital. If the Rhodes is a cobblestone alley weaving its way to Elitesville through Oxford’s libraries and cloisters, then the White House Fellowship is an express train to downtown. 

Each year, approximately 12 to 15 fellows get to work with top-level administration officials: secretary of defense, treasury, chief of staff, first lady and so on. Perhaps because government became sexy for young “meritocratic” strivers during the Clinton years, the competition got hot. More than 1,000 high flyers apply for the roughly dozen spots. Recent winners have included a who’s who of Gen X up-and-comers including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Michelle Peluso and Flavor Flav. OK, we’re joking about Flavor Flav, but you get the idea.   

Ready to apply? It’s probably not too late. The average age of the fellows is 34, and they come from all walks of life. In recent decades, according to D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, who conducted a study of White House Fellows in 2009, the fellowship has ”broadened its scope from mostly developing people in the military and business spheres to now include developing leaders in other fields such as education and nonprofits.”

Colin Powell in 1972 in front of the White House

Colin Powell as a White House Fellow in 1972.

Source Library of Congress

And these days, says Lindsay, the fellowship is ”not about gaining entry into the power corridors of Washington, D.C., as much as preparing people in their 30s for the leadership of large enterprises.”

To apply, though, you’ll need more than a pen and 30 minutes. For starters, you’ll have to summarize your community involvement over the past decade, write a 500-word memo defending a policy proposal to the president and set forth your life’s ambition in another 300-word manifesto. 

Class Portrait of White House Fellows 02-03

Source Library of Congress

But the application effort is worth it. Unlike other scholarship recipients, fellows pocket a cool $100,000 per year — though they must slave for every penny. One recent fellow compared life as a fellow to being a character in the West Wing forced to get by on two hours of sleep per day. 

After you serve your term is when it’s really time to collect. To take just one example, Daniel S. Sullivan was a corporate lawyer in Anchorage prior to joining President Bush as a fellow in 2002-2003. A few years later, Bush appointed him U.S. assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs. And when he returned to Alaska in 2009, then-governor Sarah Palin appointed him attorney general of Alaska. Not bad.

According to Lindsay, the bump from being named a fellow is measurable. Of those finalists for the program who were chosen as fellows, 32 percent “became the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, or held a similarly exalted leadership position in their field of choice,” as compared with just 12 percent of finalists who did not get their ticket punched but were every bit as qualified, says Lindsay. 

Still not convinced that the White House Fellowship is the new Rhodes? Don’t just take our word for it. Ask the 29 percent of fellows who had already won a Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Truman or other distinguished scholarship when they applied. The White House Fellowship is the new Rhodes, indeed.

Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

CEO and co-founder of OZY

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