MISSOULA – Two University of Montana seniors recently interviewed for the world’s oldest and most prestigious academic recognition, the Rhodes Scholarship.
As Rhodes finalists, Teigan Avery and Arwen Baxter joined an elite group of U.S. college students recognized for their scholarly achievements, commitment to the common good and potential for leadership.
"It is an honor for a public university to have one Rhodes finalist and very rare to have two," said Kylla Benes, the director of external scholarships and fellowships at UM who advised Avery and Baxter through the application process. "These two women were selected as finalists because they have spent their college careers highly engaged in their academic and personal interests and in their communities.
"Neither started college intending to be Rhodes finalists, but their dedication and achievements demonstrates the outstanding personalized education UM offers – an education that students can leverage for major awards like the Rhodes," Benes said.
Avery doubled-majored in economics and political science at UM and is now working toward a master’s degree in economics. A native of Kalispell, she one day wants be a professor of economics at UM, calling it her “dream job.”
Originally interested in pursuing a legal degree or a profession in medicine, Avery found her true passion in applying economics through education and research to the betterment of others. Her decision to become a professor was solidified with two life changing events while in college: treatment for thyroid cancer and the suicide of her father, a high-school counselor and her career sounding board.
“This is a big part of my life and was something I included in my personal statement to the Rhodes committee,” Avery said of the challenges she has faced. “It really made me reevaluate and find ways to make my life more meaningful.”
Today, she is working as a research assistant for UM’s Center for Population Heath Research while finalizing her master’s thesis, which explores the impact of COVID-19 vaccinations at pharmacies on children’s overall health.
“I am looking to see if access to the vaccine means parents aren’t taking their children for regular wellness checkups,” she said.
Baxter, who comes from Pocatello, Idaho, is finishing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater and a Bachelor of Arts in English literature.
“I couldn’t choose between the two, so I am studying both,” Baxter said of her four years of nonstop studies.
She opted to attend UM because of a deep family connection – her grandmother met her grandfather while attending UM, and her father studied at the University – and because she wanted to stay in the region.
“I like the intersection of humanities and the sciences of the West,” said Baxter, who volunteered in her summers during college as a research assistant on ecological studies for Idaho State University’s Stream Ecology Center.
Her creative works, which include poetry and original compositions, have been published and performed in multiple outlets. She also sings and has acted in plays produced by UM’s theater department.
When Baxter graduates she may take some time to complete a trove of scripts and other artistic projects she has in production.
“I have some applications in for graduate school,” she said, “and would like to be an interdisciplinary educator and performer working in the environmental humanities. I believe that perceptions matter, and through my work as an artist and educator I want to reframe human connections to place and ecosystems.”
Avery and Baxter, both members of UM’s Davidson Honors College, credited the large number of people who helped them prepare for the Rhodes finalist interviews, which included Office of External Scholarships & Fellowships employees, DHC staff, UM alumni, UM faculty and staff, community members and past recipients.
“We got to prepare with so many great people,” Baxter said. “It really was a honor and made me appreciate even more the quality of the people at UM.”
Both said the conversations with the Rhodes judges were insightful and inspirational.
“These were all people who are going to do great things to better the world,” Baxter said.
Avery, a scratch golfer who served as UM’s golf team captain and was the 2017 Montana State Women’s Amateur Champion, said she brought her A game to the Rhodes interviews and was grateful for the opportunity to represent UM.
“I love this university,” she said. “I want to give back to UM because it has given so much to me.”
Kylla Benes, UM director of external scholarships and fellowships, Davidson Honors College, 406-243-5241, email@example.com.