Jasmine Okidi did not view last summer as a time to regroup and relax. She saw it as a time to improve—her writing, specifically.
So the George Mason University English major, who was entering her junior year, contacted one of her professors, Keith Clark.
Clark, a professor of English and African and African American Studies at Mason, said students rarely seek him out after classes much less over the summer. But he said the request was a perfect indicator of Okidi’s seriousness as a scholar.
“Though Jasmine is clearly brilliant and accomplished, she always understands there is more to learn and ways to improve,” Clark said. “Her teachability makes her an outstanding role model of a student.”
Okidi’s dedication and accomplishments were rewarded recently with a Beinecke Scholarship, which supports exceptional students committed to research careers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
“Getting this scholarship was really reaffirming,” Okidi said. “Just to be able to gain greater confidence in being able to do the things I want to do in my academic career and in the humanities.”
The scholarship immediately awards $4,000 to recipients and makes $30,000 available for graduate school.
It is a selective award. Institutions must be invited to participate and are allowed just one nominee each.
Mason, a participant the past three years, earned inclusion with the assistance of University Professor Louise Shelley, who helped make the scholarship foundation aware of Mason’s diverse and accomplished student body.
LaNitra Berger, senior director of Mason’s Office of Fellowships, promotes the scholarship on campus and looks for students who could be nominees. She also does the heavy lifting of preparing the nominees to get through the rigorous selection process.
“This funding is so critical to students,” Shelley said. “It is a significant amount of money. The Beinecke funding can therefore be transformational in a student’s intellectual development and make it possible to continue their education without going into debt.”
Being included in Beinecke’s process also speaks highly of the university, said Berger, who noted that other winners this year are from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Brown.
“So for George Mason University and our office to have put a student at that same level, it really shows the upward trajectory of the university and the Office of Fellowships,” Berger said.
“And,” she added, “for anybody questioning what inclusive excellence looks like at Mason, there’s nothing more inclusive and excellent about a Ugandan American student being our first-ever Beinecke scholar.”
Okidi, originally from Gaithersburg, Maryland, relocated with her mother to her native Kampala, Uganda, when she was 9 years old. She returned to the United States to attend college.
Okidi said she chose Mason because the Honors College would allow her to develop a smaller community among the larger community at the university. She also was intrigued by the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series.
In her first-semester research class in the Honors College, Okidi was inspired to begin her exploration into the rhetoric of ecology and wetlands management in Uganda. She continued the research through Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR).
“I was reminded of radio messaging, TV messaging about how the lower income stakeholders were degrading the wetland and encroaching on it. Yet at the same time government permitted encroachment by private stakeholders,” Okidi said. “As a teenager, I didn’t make much sense of this contradiction. But when I came to Mason and took that class, I wanted to explore it. My first-semester project inspired me to explore that contradiction.”
It is that sense of purpose Okidi hopes will eventually put her in academia.
“I love academic research,” she said. “Being able to do research about my people, my ethnic group, is really important to me. I come from a marginalized ethnic group [the Acholi of northern Uganda and South Sudan], and would love to highlight issues and things to celebrate my people for through research and represent them that way.”
“She just has a deft critical mind,” Clark said. “Really sharp, always insightful. That’s what makes her stand out.”