Uni High grad becomes only Illinoisan to earn prestigious honor

Uni High grad becomes only Illinoisan to earn prestigious honor

He's now six months retired as pastor at Urbana's Dublin Street Church of Christ, but Charles Harmon felt the urge to return to the pulpit one more time Sunday morning.

After all, it's not every day you can tell folks who have known her since she was a tot that your 21-year-old daughter was just named one of 32 winners of the world's most prestigious scholarship.

"Everyone was just elated," the father of Champaign native, Urbana Uni High graduate, Cornell University senior and newly named Rhodes scholar Rachel Harmon said Sunday night. "She's been in that church from the time she was 2 years old. She grew up there."

His daughter found out what she described as the "Am I dreaming right now?" news Saturday night, following finalist interviews, which are conducted simultaneously the weekend before Thanksgiving in 16 districts across the country. Harmon's took place earlier that day at the Chicago History Museum.

The road to a Rhodes is long, grueling and highly competitive, requiring the endorsement of a student's university (877 students got it from 305 institutions this year) and ending with an all-expenses-paid, two- or three-year scholarship to the University of Oxford in England for the chosen 32.

In between: an agonizing wait, which Harmon and her fellow finalists from Illinois and Indiana spent over the weekend playing games — "to keep each other from being outrageously nervous," as she put it.

"As a finalist, you feel accomplished for even having made it that far," Harmon said Sunday night from her Ivy League campus in Ithaca, N.Y. "You're competing against such incredibly powerful people. It would be foolhardy to think you're going to win a Rhodes."

The resume of Illinois' lone 2015 winner suggests otherwise.

The daughter of Charles, a truck driver, and Beverly Harmon, a postal worker, Rachel will graduate in May with a degree in industrial and labor relations. In its official announcement, the Rhodes trust noted a few of her most frequent stops — the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison where she teaches inmates; the Green Dragon, Cornell's only student-run cafe, which Harmon manages; and the Mississippi Delta, where she spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in between Uni and Cornell, tutoring elementary students at an all-black rural school.

It was her second trip to one of America's depressed regions, the first coming as a high school junior when Bill Sutton, her American History teacher at Uni, took a group of students there.

"It absolutely changed my life," Harmon said.

To understand how bad the economic, educational and endless other conditions are for poor blacks in the Mississippi Delta, Harmon points to a number of recent studies. One equates the life expectancy of residents to that of people in El Salvador and other less-developed countries where access to even marginal health care remains a challenge.

Spending time in the Delta, she said, "brought me into college with a sense of urgency. I now knew students and parents and communities that were affected by all of these (socioeconomic) issues. It gave me a focus, as well, knowing what is the end goal for me."

So much so that Harmon has made a return trip to the Delta every spring and winter break during her four years at Cornell — and plans to devote her life to helping those in the region once she completes her masters in evidence-based social policy at Oxford.

Her honors thesis, which was also touted by the Rhodes Trust, focused on strategies for economic justice for low-income Mississippians.

"From early on in life, Rachel has been the kind of person that puts forth an effort to care for people," her father said.

As she recalls, it began early on, while she was in school — first at Kenwood Elementary, then Dr. Howard, where she was picked to be in the gifted program, and Jefferson Middle School.

She remembers how moved she was after reading books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges "and all of these great people that fought for justice and equality" — and how she knew then that she'd found her calling.

Sunday night, she thought about some of the people who helped her get there. There were Mr. Sutton and Janet Morford, two of her favorite teachers at Uni. Her parents, of course, who didn't have the same educational opportunities that she did but made sure that all four of their children did.

She also thought of her grandfather on her dad's side, "a fiery old man" who passed away when she was 8.

"He hobo'd at age 13 from Mississippi to St. Louis and worked different jobs so he could send money for his family to join him there," she said. "For me to be able to go to England and study — much less for free — is just unimaginable."

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ERE wrote on November 24, 2014 at 8:11 am
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Wow-an amazing honor for an amazing person...Congratulations!! 

loopillini wrote on November 24, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Congratulations on this fantastic opportunity won! You are an amazing ambassador for Champaign-Urbana and I am extremely proud of and happy for you!

Ex-Uni-parent wrote on November 24, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Congratulations Rachel!...You were always inspiring and we wish you the Best!