Congrats to Vassar’s Third Rhodes Scholar:
Tonia Williams ’21
For just the third time in its history, Vassar has a Rhodes Scholar. Tonia Williams ’21, currently a master’s degree student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been selected to pursue a PhD in experimental psychology at Oxford University in the fall.
The Rhodes Scholarship is the world’s preeminent and oldest graduate fellowship, based at the University of Oxford since 1903. Administered by the Rhodes Trust in Oxford, the program awards 100 fully funded scholarships each year to students—from anywhere in the world—with proven academic excellence who also show exceptional character, leadership, achievement in extra-curricular activities and a commitment to solving humanity’s challenges.
Williams, who grew up in Spanish Town, Jamaica, graduated from Vassar last spring with a double major in French and Francophone studies and psychology. She said she considered applying for a Rhodes Scholarship during in her senior year but decided to wait until she enrolled in graduate school. “This whole process taught me to trust my instincts,” said Williams. “I almost applied for the Rhodes last year and didn’t because I thought my application could be stronger this year. I followed my interests from computer science and education to physiological psychology and back to human development.”
Her research at Oxford will focus on the ways in which dialects and accents influence language learning in early childhood. “My motivation for this research comes from my growing up in Jamaica where our second (arguably, first) language is an English dialect called Patois,” she said. “I’m hoping my research will be applicable there as well.”
Williams credits Vassar’s flexible curriculum with helping her determine her post-Vassar academic path. She said she arrived at Vassar intending to major in education. “Then I took some psych classes, and for a while after that I was grappling between computer science and chemistry,” she said.
Williams also took several French courses and enrolled in the Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris in the fall of 2019, her junior year. She said the semester in France not only enhanced her language skills but also enabled her to continue her studies in the field of education. “I lived with a great host and also completed an internship in the field of educational technology, which is one of my interests, so it’s no surprise that after a couple of weeks I started to get more comfortable with my French,” she said.
Her time in France led to her decision to major in both French and Francophone studies and psychological science. “I continued taking education courses, and ultimately I felt I could apply what I’d learned in my psych classes to education,” she said. This led her to pursue a graduate degree in education at Harvard.
When she learned she had been accepted at Oxford, Williams said, “I called my family in Jamaica three seconds later. They told me they were excited but not surprised—and then I ran a quick lap around my house.”
The Class of 2021 Rhodes Scholars were chosen after a virtual selection process due to COVID—it was the first time in the history of the Rhodes Scholarships that final interviews had not taken place in person.
For more information about the 2021 Scholars, see their detailed biographies.