What struck Lamb as particularly odd was the end of the process. The candidates must wait while the committee deliberates on the finalists. After several hours, the committee summons the candidates, who line up in front of the group. "It was just like a beauty pageant. We all had to stand in line," Lamb says. "I had in my mind who was going to move on to the district level. I never thought it was going to be me."
But the state committee surprised her by sending her to the district finals in San Francisco. The state interviews were on a Wednesday and the district interviews came on the following Saturday. She had a day to attend classes, pack her bags and fly to California.
"The district interviews were even more intense than the state interviews," Lamb says. The panelists threw her tough technical questions, such as "Explain the structure of Plato's Symposium." Then came more open-ended queries, such as "From Classical literature, what book or play would you tell Donald Rumsfeld to read?" (Her answer: The Trojan Women by Euripides.)
Again, the candidates had to line up in front of the committee members. When the committee chair told Lamb she would be going to Oxford, "I was in shock. I just stood there," she recalls. "It was very, very surreal."
A month later, she says it still doesn't seem real. "I still haven't absorbed it all. My mother is on the moon somewhere, she's so proud and happy. For me, it won't be real until I get there."
Lamb plans to attend Merton College at Oxford and study Egyptology. Her interests focus on the Hellenistic period of Egyptian history from Alexander the Great's conquest to Cleopatra's downfall.
After Alexander's death, one of his favorite generals, Ptolemy, started a dynasty over Egypt. Though the royal family spoke Greek at home, they also took on many of the traditions of the ancient pharaohs. "You have people from different cultures in contact with each other, trying to get along in an uneasy balance," Lamb says.
"I'm particularly intrigued by cultural identity. What did it mean to be Greek and Egyptian?"
In the long term, Lamb hopes to earn a Ph.D. and teach someday. One of the Rhodes panelists asked her if burying herself in ancient history and culture was the best choice. Shouldn't she be "more visible" as a role model for other young African American women, he asked. "That was probably the toughest question anyone asked me," Lamb says.
"I had to think hard about it. I finally said something I truly believe, and that is that is it is best to lead by example. If I make a contribution to Egyptology someday, I may inspire others to follow an academic path," she says.
But Lamb doesn't have to wait. Her story was picked up by the Associated Press and spread across the nation-along with her picture. Jet Magazine has already noted her achievements. President Lee Huntsman told her story in a recent commentary published in the Sunday Seattle Times. Her success is already inspiring others to study hard, love books and follow their dreams.
Tom Griffin has been editor of Columns Magazine for 14 years and is author of the new book, The University of Washington Experience.
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