By Judy Berthiaume
Tayo Sanders II was a talented high school student with a passion for science and an eye toward a career in medicine or engineering the first time he stepped onto the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.
While bright and ambitious, at that time the word research didn’t mean a lot to Sanders, nanoscience sounded like a foreign language, he’d barely traveled outside of Wisconsin, and he’d never even heard of the Rhodes scholarship.
But a friend’s father who was a physician and a UW-Eau Claire graduate convinced him that his alma mater, a regional public university with a nationally known chemistry program and highly accessible professors, would be a good fit for Sanders, a first-generation college student with limited financial resources.
Turns out, his friend’s dad could not have been more right.
In November 2014, Sanders was named one of 32 American students who will make up the 2015 Rhodes scholar class. In October — after graduating from UW-Eau Claire and then completing a summer internship at an investment firm in Washington, D.C. — he will begin his studies at Oxford University in England, where he will pursue his doctoral degree in materials while immersed in research alongside some of the world’s most respected scientists.
As a Rhodes scholar, Sanders joins an elite group that includes U.S. presidents, members of Congress, artists and others who are known internationally for their contributions to their chosen professions.
“In many ways, it still hasn’t fully sunk in,” says Sanders, who is one of just a handful of students from a public regional university to ever be selected as a Rhodes scholar, arguably the most prestigious scholarship program in the world. “When my professors suggested that I apply to be a Rhodes scholar, I didn’t even know what it was. And once I looked into it, I didn’t think I had a chance. But they convinced me to try and helped me believe it was possible.”
“I can’t imagine myself as a Rhodes scholar if I had gone to school anywhere else.”
That encouragement to dream big and believe he could compete with students from America’s most elite institutions is typical of the support he’s received from faculty and staff since his earliest days on the UW-Eau Claire campus, Sanders says.
“My parents have been tremendous supporters of my education, but neither of them went to college, so I couldn’t rely on their experience,” says Sanders.
“I wanted to come to a school like UW-Eau Claire because I wanted to interact with the people who have the most knowledge to share — the professors. Knowing that professors, not TAs, teach every class here was huge for me.”
It didn’t take Sanders long to realize just how valuable those faculty connections could be.
It was at summer orientation before his freshman year that Sanders met Dr. Matt Evans, a physics professor who coordinates the Blugold Fellowship program, an initiative that pairs freshmen with faculty mentors to work on research.
While not fully understanding what it meant to do research, Sanders was passionate about science and loved the idea of being paired with a science professor at the start of his college career, so he jumped at Evans’ offer of a Blugold Fellowship. The stipend he received as a fellow also meant that he could focus on his studies without the worries of finding a part-time job.
His immediate connection with Evans also helped ease his transition to college.
“Coming in as a freshman, I felt a little lost and not particularly worthy,” says Sanders, a native of Kimberly.
“Knowing Dr. Evans made me feel connected to the university.”
“The first few weeks I was here, I am almost certain I annoyed him as I was connecting with him in person or email nearly every day. Still, he always made time for me and was a constant.”
Evans encouraged Sanders to talk to science faculty to identify opportunities for research that interested him. He soon was introduced to Dr. Jennifer Dahl, an assistant professor of materials science who was starting a nanoparticle research project and was looking for a student to help her.
“I was a freshman who knew nothing about research or nanoscience, so I didn’t think she’d take me seriously,” Sanders says. “I probably drove her crazy trying to talk to her about her project.”
“When we finally met in the lab, I saw nanoparticles under a microscope for the first time. It was frankly the coolest thing I’d ever seen — it immediately changed everything for me.”
“I was anything but a researcher at the time, but Dr. Dahl took a chance with me. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Sanders and Dahl have collaborated on research ever since, with Dahl describing Sanders as her “right arm” in her nanoparticle research.
Within weeks of starting his research with Dahl, Sanders knew that he’d found his academic niche and a path to his future. He quickly abandoned his earlier career aspirations and instead focused his future goals around being a researcher and professor in the nanosciences.
Sanders wants to someday be a professor with his own research projects so he can inspire others as he’s been inspired by Dahl, he says.
“I’m completely captivated by science,” Sanders says.
“It would be a privilege to help inspire and guide the next generation of scientists and help other people fulfill their potential.”
In addition to being a phenomenal teacher and research mentor, Dahl also was someone Sanders could go to for support and advice, first as he settled into college, and later as he evaluated potential paths that would move him toward his future goals.
“She helped me be comfortable here,” Sanders says of Dahl. “She encouraged me and motivated me, and gave me advice on everything from classes to relationships. I’m not sure this path is one I could have followed had it not been for her support.”
Through his partnership with Dahl — as well as special projects with materials science professors Dr. Doug Dunham and Dr. Marc McEllistrem — Sanders has been immersed in challenging research throughout his college career. His research has been published in prestigious science journals, and he’s been invited to present his work at professional conferences throughout the country.
While the science itself is fascinating, Sanders says it’s the problem-solving, communication and leadership skills he’s developed as a student researcher that has had the greatest impact on his ability to succeed on campus and internationally.
“Research is so much more than doing experiments in a lab,” Sanders says.
“It teaches you to think critically, to ask questions and to share information. It’s also a great way for students to develop strong relationships with professors, and those relationships matter.”
Opportunities to present his research helped him learn how to talk about science in a way that makes it meaningful to everyone, Sanders says.
“It’s important to be able to share my research in a way that people outside of the STEM fields can understand because science touches all of us,” Sanders says. “I’ve had opportunities to present to other scientists at conferences, but the situations where I’ve had to explain research to non-scientists have been the most difficult and rewarding.”
His research also made college more affordable, Sanders says, noting that the stipends he’s earned as a student researcher have paid his living expenses.
“One of the things that makes UW-Eau Claire special is the university’s commitment to offering experiences to develop real-world skills and even get paid for them, at least in the STEM fields,” Sanders says of the paid student research positions.
In addition to being a Blugold Fellow, Sanders also was a McNair Scholar and a Goldwater Scholar, both of which provided funding to support his student research positions.
Sanders’ success as a researcher also paved the way for him to secure a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, funding that sent him to France for a summer in 2013 to work with scientists in the nanomaterials lab at the University of Strasbourg.
In France, he enhanced his research skills and learned to work as part of an international research team while navigating a new culture. The experience, he says, helped him stand out in the Rhodes selection process and also will help him as he begins his doctoral program in another country.
While in Europe for the summer research program, Sanders visited Oxford University, where he met materials faculty and graduate students and toured the materials labs. The visit convinced him Oxford would be a great fit for him, a realization that motivated him even more to pursue the Rhodes.
It was Dahl who first suggested Sanders apply for the Rhodes scholarship, whose winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes. After looking into the highly competitive program, he dismissed Dahl’s suggestion because he thought the Rhodes was “too out of reach to even consider.”
But Dahl and other Blugold mentors convinced him that he had the academic and research credentials — as well as the leadership and interpersonal skills that the Rhodes Trust values in its scholars — to compete for the honor.
While his science course work and research were critical to him being a viable Rhodes candidate, other academic programs and extracurricular activities also played an important role, he says.
The Honors Program and its director, Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, gave him opportunities to challenge himself alongside other ambitious and high-achieving students, Sanders says.
Small, interactive Honors classes, filled with some of the university’s brightest students, pushed him out of his comfort zone, helping him develop his critical-thinking skills, an ability to examine complex topics, and the interpersonal skills he needs to share opinions and debate issues with his peers and others, Sanders says.
“There was real dialogue that helped all of us learn to form our own thoughts and then share them,” Sanders says of Honors classes.
“We learned to listen and respect opinions that differ from our own. A simple lesson, maybe, but one I think we often forget. Those experiences helped me in the Rhodes interviews and will help me throughout my life.”
Vahlbusch, who teaches German and has lived in Germany, also was instrumental in helping Sanders connect with his German relatives during his summer in Europe. Sanders knew his maternal grandfather had immigrated to the United States, but he’d never had contact with the family his grandfather had left behind.
“Before I left for France, Dr. Vahlbusch gave me valuable advice relating to his experience in Germany, and he offered to help me write letters so I could meet my great uncle and other relatives,” Sanders says. “Meeting them was the best part of my summer. It was a pleasure to hear stories about my grandfather’s childhood. I also was happy to find that science runs in the family as I discovered my cousin is a physicist.”
“I’m grateful to Dr. Vahlbusch for helping me make those connections — it wasn’t something he had to do but something he wanted to do.”
Sanders now is giving back to the Honors Program by serving as an Honors mentor to younger Honors students. He’s co-teaching an Honors 100 seminar this semester, with Vahlbusch serving as his adviser.
Remembering how fascinated he was with science as a young boy, Sanders also volunteers with outreach programs to help spur that same passion in other young people.
As a multicultural student who grew up with limited financial resources, he’s especially motivated to get youth who are part of underrepresented populations excited about science and other STEM fields.
A mentor and leader of a UW-Eau Claire program for minority students, Sanders does community outreach for STEM careers. He also leads tours for prospective UW-Eau Claire students, represents the university at education fairs, and provides support and laboratory instruction to underrepresented college students as a mentor in the National Science Foundation’s Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation summer program.
“I love seeing the wonder on peoples’ faces when we show them something fascinating,” Sanders says of his science outreach.
“I want to stir up a passion for it because my own love of science started with these same types of demos and experiments.”
These and other outside-the-classroom experiences have been an unexpected but meaningful part of his college experience, Sanders says, noting that through them he’s gained confidence, new skills, connections with faculty and staff across campus, and a wide circle of friends.
An athlete in high school, Sanders was having trouble finding the motivation to stay fit once he got to college. But he became intrigued by the triathlon event while watching the Olympics the summer after his freshman year, so he sought out UW-Eau Claire’s Triathlon Club when he got back to campus in the fall.
Even though he couldn’t swim — one of the three sports, along with running and biking, that make up a triathlon — Sanders joined the club.
“I spent a lot of time in the pool that fall learning to swim,” says Sanders, adding that he was even more motivated after learning that a mentor, Evans, was the club adviser. “I could stay above water but didn’t know how to breathe or do any of the strokes.”
“My goal wasn’t to be the best but to try something new. It’s been an incredible journey, and I’m lucky to have made so many friends along the way.”
He also got pretty good at the sport. Six months after jumping into the McPhee pool for the first time, Sanders was on his way to Arizona after qualifying for nationals.
While helping him stay fit, he says the Triathlon Club also helped him hone his organizational and leadership skills.
“With Dr. Evans as an adviser, I’ve learned to facilitate discussions, help find solutions to issues and work through different visions for what members want the club to be,” says Sanders, who now is the club’s co-captain. “It’s also been great to be part of a small community of people with a shared interest that’s outside of academics.”
Always open to new experiences, Sanders also began looking for ways to improve his dance moves after realizing his skills in that area were weak, a revelation that came after a conversation with a young woman who loves to dance.
His search led him to Salsa Clara, a student organization that welcomes dancers of all skill levels. He joined the club and soon was confident enough in his salsa skills to join other students in giving weekly salsa lessons at a local Mexican restaurant.
His new hobby came in surprisingly handy during the Rhodes interview process, when one of the judges noticed Salsa Clara on his resume and shared that she’d been in a salsa club at Oxford when she was a Rhodes scholar.
“It was when I was talking salsa clubs at Oxford with one of the judges that I thought I might actually have a shot at the Rhodes,” Sanders says with a laugh.
While he jokes about salsa dancing helping his Rhodes candidacy, Sanders says the varied experiences he’s had at UW-Eau Claire were critical to his success in the Rhodes selection process since the Rhodes criteria go beyond academics.
As Sanders worked through the complex Rhodes application process, many faculty and staff were there to guide and support him.
As a McNair Scholar — a program that helps prepare first-generation students from low-income families and students from underrepresented populations for graduate school — Sanders was able to work closely with Patricia Quinn, director of UW-Eau Claire’s McNair Program. Her advice was invaluable as he moved from applicant to finalist, he says.
Many faculty, staff and administrators wrote letters of recommendation on Sanders’ behalf, the chancellor endorsed him, and others spent many hours offering him advice and support of all kinds. It was a UW-Eau Claire professor with ties to Oxford University who arranged for Sanders to meet with faculty and graduate students and tour the labs at Oxford the summer he was in France.
“Just being at Oxford and meeting the professors and researchers was a powerful and motivating experience,” Sanders says, noting that the visit convinced him the doctoral program there was the right fit for him.
“I’m grateful that a professor here helped me have that experience. It probably would have been a little awkward walking into a lab at Oxford on my own.”
His visit to Oxford made it even more exciting — and unbelievable — to open an email last fall telling him he’d been selected as one of 12 Rhodes finalists in his district.
“I was in a computer lab when the message came,” Sanders says. “I’d gotten bad news earlier in the week about another scholarship, so I wasn’t expecting much when I opened the Rhodes email.”
“I read it and sat staring at the screen for a while as it sunk in. Then I threw my fist in the air and started yelling and running around the room.”
“Looking back, it was embarrassing. Luckily, no one else was there.”
After he notified his mentors that he was a finalist and would be heading to Chicago for interviews with judges, the campus community again stepped in to help, he says.
A team of faculty and staff organized mock interviews with Sanders to help him feel more prepared and confident going into the live interviews with the Rhodes judges.
“I knew I’d meet with a panel of extremely accomplished people who could ask me questions as defined or nebulous as they wanted about topics ranging from science to life to baseball or poetry,” Sanders says of the interviews with judges, who would decide which two finalists would be named Rhodes scholars. “Having so many people here help me prepare for the interviews was incredible. Though I had so much respect for the people here that I was really worried about making a good impression on them during the mock interviews. My anxiety about the actual interviews ended up paling in comparison to the mock interviews. Truthfully, I felt pretty relaxed going into the actual interviews because I felt like the hardest part already was over.”
Knowing that he’d had the support of so many people he respected on campus also made it easier to wait the several hours it took for the judges to make their decision after the interviews were complete, Sanders says.
“The other finalists all were fantastic, impressive people,” Sanders says. “We had incredibly stimulating conversations about research and current events as we waited for the judges. The more I learned about them, the less I expected to hear my name when the judges announced the winners. And I was OK with that because it was enough to know that people I respect so much on this campus believed that I belonged in this group and had done so much to help me get there.”
When the judges did say Sanders’ name, he was stunned.
“I was astounded and in disbelief; I don’t remember much of the first few minutes,” Sanders says, adding that he still goes to the Rhodes website from time to time to make sure his name really is listed among the 2015 Rhodes scholars. “I had to borrow a phone from a judge so I could call my mom and my dad because my phone was dead. It was all crazy. My dad recently moved to the Chicago area, and planned to surprise me with a visit so it was great that we could spend time together celebrating. It meant a lot to hear him tell me how proud he was of me. But it also was very emotional to tell Dr. Dahl and my other mentors that I’d won. It’s still kind of unbelievable. I expect it will finally sink in when I claim my new lab notebook at Oxford.”
While he won’t head to Oxford until October, already his affiliation with the Rhodes program is paying dividends. A previous Rhodes winner who now owns an investment firm in Washington, D.C., offered Sanders a summer internship, giving him yet another opportunity for him to step outside his comfort zone.
“Research is in my past and future, so I’m excited to explore something new with this internship,” Sanders says. “The internship will focus on investing, and I hope to draw back on this experience when applying for funding and looking to take new technologies to scale.”
While Sanders is excited about Oxford and wherever else life takes him, he says a part of him will always be tied to UW-Eau Claire.
“I’m on this path because of the people I met here,” Sanders says. “Their support and encouragement has meant everything to me. I’ll always be connected to Dr. Dahl and others who had faith in me and opened so many doors. It’s difficult to put into words how much they mean to me. I hope they will always be part of my life, and I hope they know my gratitude for them is abiding.”
“This university always will be a part of me.”