Rachael Merritt is one of 32-American students awarded the esteemed 2022 Rhodes Scholarship. Through the scholarship, Merritt will spend the next two to three years at Oxford studying Social Science of the Internet. 

A senior at the University of Michigan, where she’s currently double majoring in Russian Language & Culture and International Studies, with a concentration in International Security, Norms & Cooperation. For Merritt, achieving dreams is an old-hat trick: “The University of Michigan is the school I always wanted to go to growing up –– all of my siblings went here as well!”

“Being a freshman at Michigan is awesome,” Merritt gushed. From college football to working part-time for Michigan Dining, there was no part of the University experience that Merritt didn’t get her hands in. “I kind of jumped right away into 300 level courses,” Merritt described with a laugh, “I didn’t know the difference between 100 and 300.” The 100 and 300 numbers denote the level of the rigor for the course, contrasted between introductory 100 level classes and more specialized 300 level courses primarily offered to upperclassmen. “I really enjoyed it though! But I was also the person that didn’t know anything –– but I was never afraid to embarrass myself in a class. If I didn’t know something, I would ask.”

“I didn’t pick those two majors until my sophomore year,” Merritt described, instead choosing to explore a variety of topics during her freshman year. “I’m super interested in social sciences because they bleed into almost every single discipline, like history or political science.” Merritt’s affinity for interdisciplinary study extends to her hobbies, too. “Right now, I’m reading a book about behavioral economics –– ‘Nudge’ –– and it’s the economic side of the social sciences.

For some, a Rhodes award and future at Oxford might make the tail-end of senior year feel underwhelming –– but not for Merritt. “No, it’s not underwhelming,” Merritt offered with a laugh. But, Merrit allowed, “I would say I’m just super eager to tie things off. It’s been such a long time, waiting between emails –– I’m excited to let my brain rest for a minute.” The “waiting” isn't quite over for Merritt, who mentioned that the final pieces of paperwork are still being filed. “But waiting for this isn’t nearly as bad!” Concluding with a smile, “I’m in a very good place, I’m happy.”

The road to Rhodes wasn’t a straight path for Merritt. To test the waters and evaluate what steps she wanted to take next, Merritt participated in two internships over the summer of 2021. “While I had a really enjoyable experience [working], I found myself missing learning, missing academia.” The realization provided Merritt a newfound momentum that would carry her towards the Rhodes scholarship. “I decided to give myself a shot –– if the programs work out, then I’m going!” There was nothing to lose, and everything to gain for Merritt. “I figured it would be silly not to try… we have these resources at Michigan, why not use them?”

A love of learning was something Merritt cultivated over time. “At first, it can be overwhelming because the biggest feeling is ‘I know nothing, this is frustrating,’” Merritt said, reflecting on her experiences when she first started university. But now, “Every time I learn something else, you’re learning another layer –– another way to see the world.” Her experiences as an undergrad have helped Merritt build a foundation to prepare herself to be a student of the world. “I feel ready now… I’m able to synthesize information in useful ways.”

Despite her love of learning, Merritt isn’t quite ready to commit to a lifetime in academia. For her, Merritt sees her master’s program as “something that I'll always be connected to.” Merritt is eager, too, to get out into the world and apply her talents to real world issues, “I’m very goal oriented, very policy oriented,” Merritt reflected, “I think I would be a little too restless in academia in the long run. I also love working with people, I love the idea of building something and working with activists on the ground.” But, Merritt admitted, “if I found something worthwhile to teach? Maybe.”

Merritt’s path to the Rhodes scholarship also included a study abroad program in Moscow, influenced by her interest in Russian language & culture, and politics. “Moscow has a very historical feeling to the city, and it’s a business and political hub.” In Moscow, Merritt studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. The Russian language attracted Merrit for its challenge and an interest in Cold War politics and history. “[Russia] was kind of a mystery to me –– and I had never heard the language spoken before until college… Now, I love how Russian sounds!”

Now, Merritt will conquer another piece of the globe at Oxford. “I realized that the Oxford Internet Institute is one of the only programs in the world that offers a degree in social science of the Internet.” Academically, Oxford is a perfect fit. Merritt joked, “I suppose it may be weird living in English speaking country instead of a Russian speaking country while abroad.” A seasoned-traveler and Michigan Wolverine, Merrit isn’t afraid of the big move across the pond

Merritt said her love for travel and fascination with global policy came from a childhood spent camping and exploring the mountains of West Virginia, where she has family roots. A streak of curiosity pushed Merrit to experience as much as she could, “every summer I tried to go somewhere new, find an excuse to go work somewhere different. One summer I was even an outback horse guide in Montana.” Merritt surmised, “It was just adventure, it’s fun. Within that, you create more space for yourself to grow, by changing every bit of your routine you get so many new experiences, meet new people –– it’s addicting!” Merritt admitted with a laugh, “every few months, I start thinking ‘ok, I want to go somewhere new.’”

For fellow Wolverines, Merritt had a few words of advice: “Engage yourself in your classes and your peers –– participation, participation, participation! You will get the most out of your coursework by participating, asking questions, going to office hours, getting to know professors on a human and professional level… Professors will be your support system throughout college.” 

Embrace adventure, make the gamble, be unafraid to take the leap –– Rachael Merritt shows us how even the most impossible dreams can be achieved by taking the plunge. Sometimes, our biggest obstacles can be our own self-doubt.