Garima P. Desai is the first Rhodes Scholar ever selected from UCSC.
(Rhodes Trust / Contributed)
Higher Ed

Garima P. Desai becomes UCSC’s first Rhodes Scholar: ‘I felt like I had the whole university on my back’

A Rhodes Scholarship couldn’t have been further from the mind of UC Santa Cruz alumna Garima P. Desai when she stepped into a professor’s office in February, months before her graduation.

“I didn’t even know what a Rhodes Scholar was,” Desai told Lookout Santa Cruz Monday.

Politics and legal studies professor Mark Fathi Massoud looked over her credentials — double majors, a 4.0 GPA and research credits. “‘He said, I was a Rhodes finalist, but I would not want to apply in the same year that you’re applying,’” Desai recalled.

Desai was skeptical, but she applied anyway.

Now she is heading to Oxford University next year as one of 32 Rhodes Scholars from the U.S. Her selection is a milestone for Banana Slugs everywhere, marking the first time UCSC is represented in the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship program.

Desai, 22, is a native of Fremont and the daughter of Indian immigrants. She graduated from UCSC in May with bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies and economics, and research experience in housing and transportation. She now works as a transportation planner in Oakland.

Garima Desai, left, poses for a photo with her parents at Multnomah Falls in Portland, Oregon.
Garima Desai, left, poses for a photo with her parents at Multnomah Falls in Portland, Oregon, where she spent a summer as a Transportation Research Fellow.
(Garima P. Desai / Contributed)

At Oxford, Desai said she is planning another double major: pursuing master’s degrees in environmental studies and economics to prepare her for law school and, eventually, a career as a climate attorney.

“I need to understand science and economics — those are a powerful combination,” Desai said. “If I’m going to be an environmental advocate, an environmental leader, I really need both of those things.”

It’s a career calling that’s personal for two reasons, Desai said. First, her upbringing in California, where the effects of climate change are increasingly evident drastic. Second, the values she learned from her ashram, where she learned the practice of “seva,” the Sanskrit word for selfless service.

“That practice has been so ingrained in me since I was five years old, that I see environmentalism as much more than my career,” she said. “I see it as my ‘dharma,’ my ‘seva.’” Dharma means “sacred duty” in Sanskrit.

Rhodes Scholars have their tuition, travel and living expenses paid for while studying at Oxford for 2-4 years — an average value of about $70,000 per year. The 2021 class also includes the first student from Southern Connecticut State University.

Applicants must be endorsed by their college or university. They are selected based on factors including social consciousness, ability to collaborate, and their ambition to make a positive impact in the world.

This year, more than 2,300 U.S. applicants began the process, with 953 endorsed by their college or university, according to the Rhodes Trust. Finalists in 16 districts are invited for interviews.

Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said the class of scholars reflects “the remarkable diversity” of the United States, including 22 students of color, nine first-generation Americans or immigrants, and one “Dreamer” — a student with active DACA status.

“They are leaders already,” Gerson said in a statement, “and we are confident that their contributions to public welfare globally will expand exponentially over the course of their careers.”

At UCSC, spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason called Desai’s selection a “proud moment for our campus,” adding that a formal release to commemorate the occasion was in the works.

The significance of her selection to the wider UCSC community isn’t lost on Desai. Her older sister is also a Banana Slug, and Desai said she followed in her footsteps after being struck on a visit by the kindness she felt from its students.

“I feel so honored that it’s me,” she said. “But more than me, when I was told I was a finalist, walking into that interview I felt like I had the whole university on my back.”