Rhodes Scholar Alumni Event

Rhodes scholar Grant Rigney and wife Julia show a photo of the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford during a virtual alumni event on Nov. 19, 2020. 

Grant and Julia Rigney are living what many see as an academic fairytale. Upon their graduation from UT in 2019, Grant became UT’s eighth Rhodes Scholar and the pair moved to Oxford, England, home of one of the world’s oldest and most renowned universities.

The husband and wife duo were both awarded prestigious national postgraduate scholarships, with Julia (née Scott) receiving the Fulbright Scholarship with plans to teach English in the small state of Andorra. But the two decided to move to Oxford together, where Grant is working towards a master’s degree in clinical neuroscience and Julia is working for a London-based bank.

On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 19, the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development hosted the Rigneys in a virtual dinner event called “Dinner with 12 Vols,” where students could come and meet notable alumni from around the world. Because of the time difference, the Zoom call with Grant and Julia took place at noon.

During their time at UT, Grant and Julia not only received bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and economics, respectively, but were involved in several student organizations, including the Haslam Scholars Program, Student Alumni Associates and Global Leadership Scholars.

As recipients of two of the nation’s top scholarships, they were asked by some of the 10 or so students on the call about what it takes to become a Rhodes or a Fulbright recipient.

According to Mr. Rigney, the main skill needed to become one of the 32 American students who receive full funding for graduate work at Oxford is the ability to tell your own story.

“I would just start writing,” Grant Rigney said. “I know that’s kind of lame advice, but the hardest part of national scholarships and fellowships is being able to write well and being able to explain your story and why you need this scholarship.”

Mr. Rigney, who is pursuing neurosurgery, says that he never thought he would actually receive the Rhodes scholarship, which made the application process less stressful. But the team at UT that helped him apply, including Andrew Seidler from the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, taught him how to unify his life experience around a single pursuit.

“It’s always helpful to learn more about yourself, which sounds kind of cliché, but learning what motivates you and what bothers you and what your core motives are for pursuing something,” Mr. Rigney said. “Those kinds of things are always pretty insightful to write about.”

Julia Rigney also cited her husband’s seemingly disparate passions for music, engineering and surgery to advise students to find the common thing that ties their experience into a compelling narrative.

“What scholarships want to see is how everything you’ve done in your life so far has led up to this application,” Mrs. Rigney said. “What are the threads that tie all these things together? Like for Grant, everything that he’s done has been about mastering different systems and then using those to create really beautiful things.”

When asked about the pressure of being a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Rigney said that he often feels the effects of imposter syndrome being surrounded by the world’s top young scholars.

However, he also shared an important message about the power of being content, even in the face of rejection, which he experienced from two national scholarship programs before applying to the Rhodes.

“It’s hard to have confidence when you’re around a lot of people who you sense are doing things that you think are better than what you’re doing,” Mr. Rigney said.

“The mix of self-confidence and self-doubt is well mitigated by feeling content with where you’re at, because if you’re content, you don’t have to worry about doubting your abilities or doubting what you’re worth if you don’t get the scholarship or the fellowship.”

As for life in Oxford, widely considered one of the most charming cities in the world, the couple can rattle off a list of entertaining cultural differences they have discovered in their year and a half in England. Cilantro is called “coriander,” supermarkets are small with no parking and the richest people live in the countryside.

The couple can also name some of the places in the storied city that have become dear to them. These include the cavernous Blackwell’s bookshop and the tower at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, which gives a stunning view of the city.

“That’s actually one of our tips for traveling,” Mrs. Rigney said. “Any time you go somewhere new, if you can climb up a tall building and get a view of the whole city, it is always going to be amazing. We’ve done that almost everywhere that we’ve traveled, and it’s so fun.”

The couple shared some about their experiences of cheap travel within Europe before the total lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included trips to Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Norway and France. Malta, the couple shared, is a bit like the Florida of the European Union, the southernmost point where retirees go to relax.

Amid all the new experiences and travel, however, the Rigneys have not forgotten about their UT roots, and even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. Grant described seeing a man running in Oxford who was wearing a quarter zip with the orange Power T.

“I noticed it out of the corner of my eye and turned around and shouted ‘Go Vols!’ at him and I think I scared him, but I was like, you know, they’re everywhere,” Mr. Rigney said.

“Vols are everywhere.”

One Vol in particular was mentioned by Julia Rigney. Hera Jay Brown, UT’s ninth Rhodes Scholar, made the pair feel less like foreigners when she casually mentioned the PCB dining hall during a visit to the Rigney’s home.

Grant Rigney also has fond memories of Ray’s Place, the underground restaurant on the Hill with a cult following.

The two took time near the end of the hour-long call to express gratitude for the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Student Alumni Associates program for helping them to network and build relationships.

“A lot of people teach you in college that your grades are what determine what job you get, and how well you do and the research you do and yada yada yada is what determines how successful you’ll be, and by and large it is not that,” Mr. Rigney said.

“It is the people that know you and like you. If you have friends in high places, you will get jobs in high places.”

The Rigneys, dazzled and grateful for their existence in Oxford and for the chance to mentor students who want to follow in their path, still see contentment as more important than any scholarly glamour that may have come their way with the Rhodes Scholarship.

“My life would’ve been great without this scholarship,” Mr. Rigney said.

“We’re really happy he got it, though,” Mrs. Rigney replied.

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