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The making of a Rhodes scholar

| Judy Berthiaume

A recent UW-Eau Claire graduate with a passion for research and a natural ability to lead is among the 32 Americans named as 2015 Rhodes scholars.

As a recipient of the prestigious award, Tayo A. Sanders II, originally from Neenah and a graduate of Kimberly High School, will have a full ride to attend Oxford University in England, where he plans to pursue a doctorate in materials beginning this fall.

Sanders was selected to receive the Rhodes scholarship from a pool of 877 applicants endorsed by 305 colleges and universities. He is the only Wisconsinite among the 2015 Rhodes scholars, a majority of whom have studied at nationally known private institutions or large research universities.

"I was truly at a loss for words," Sanders said of his reaction upon learning last November that he was one of two selected for the award from among the 12 finalists in his district. "After spending hours getting to know the other finalists, I realized just how incredible each individual was. To actually be one of the two finalists selected was a reality that I never anticipated."

The campus community is proud that a second UW-Eau Claire student has been selected as a Rhodes scholar, said Chancellor James Schmidt.

"Tayo Sanders' selection for this prestigious honor —in the company of fellow scholars from private institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Princeton —is a testament to his outstanding effort as an undergraduate student," Schmidt said. "It also is a testament to the contributions of the many dedicated faculty and staff here at UW-Eau Claire who day after day provide the excellent teaching and the beyond-the-classroom experiences that prepare our students to excel when they go out into the world with their Blugold degree in hand."

Encouragement to dream big

Sanders said UW-Eau Claire's commitment to fostering strong faculty-student relationships has been a key factor in preparing him to receive an honor like the Rhodes award.

"I've been so fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with so many faculty," Sanders said. "These are the individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to academic pursuits, and to be able to easily engage in direct discourse with professors creates opportunities for a much more profound comprehension of material. UWEC's emphasis on undergraduate research has also developed my ability to draw connections between material learned in my courses and their applications to the real world —a skill that will prove absolutely essential as I continue on my academic path at Oxford."

A University Honors student who earned his bachelor's degree in materials science with emphases in chemistry and liberal arts from UW-Eau Claire in May, Sanders has excelled in the classroom, in his research, and in his athletic and other extracurricular activities.

"Tayo is an outstanding researcher, and I doubt there are many undergraduate researchers possessing such a broad, yet well-developed, skill set," said Jennifer Dahl, an assistant professor of materials science who served as Sanders' faculty research mentor for more than three years.

Sanders joined Dahl's research group as a freshman, using his natural leadership skills to become a role model for other student researchers at UW-Eau Claire, Dahl said.

"Although I tasked Tayo with the most challenging research project in my lab, he far exceeded my expectations, setting the bar ever higher for new members of the group," Dahl said. "Over the three years that we worked together, Tayo proved himself to be an independent, mature student whom I considered a collaborator, rather than the typical apprentice."

All things science

A first-generation college student, Sanders said he's always been fascinated by all things relating to the sciences. A microscope he received as a gift for his seventh birthday "tied the knot in my love affair with science," he said, noting that the microscope "revealed an extraordinary and foreign world."

His love for science continued throughout his childhood, eventually leading him to his "home in the materials science program at UW-Eau Claire and as 'the right arm' of Dr. Dahl in her nanoparticle research."

As both a McNair Scholar and a Goldwater Scholar during his time as a UW-Eau Claire undergraduate, Sanders was able to pursue his passion for highly complex research while continuing his work with Dahl. His research has been published, and he presented his findings, particularly in the area of nanotechnology, at the local, state and national levels.

Sanders already has had one international research experience. With funding from the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, he worked with a team of researchers on nanoparticles in the nanomaterials lab at the University of Strasbourg in France in the summer of 2013.

As part of that summer research program, Sanders visited Oxford, where he met materials faculty and graduate students and toured the materials labs. The experience convinced him that the Oxford materials doctoral program was the right fit for him.

Given his intellect and determination, Sanders will achieve his dreams of someday becoming a college professor, managing his own research programs and training the next generation of scientists, Dahl said.

Sanders said Dahl has been an example he intends to follow.

"My ultimate goal is to become a professor and emulate the research experience I've had with Dr. Dahl with students of my own," Sanders said. "I will do everything I can to be in a position where I can give hope to students like she has given hope to me."  

A leader among students

As a mentor and leader of a UW-Eau Claire program for minority students, Sanders did community outreach for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)careers. He also led tours for prospective UW-Eau Claire students and represented the university at education fairs.

Sanders said he discovered a passion for instruction as a student academic apprentice for a new upper-division materials science course and through his volunteer efforts at the Children's Museum of Eau Claire.

He also provided support and laboratory instruction to underrepresented college students as a mentor in the National Science Foundation's Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation summer program.

In spring 2015, Sanders served as a mentor in the University Honors Program, co-teaching a section of Honors 100. Jeff Vahlbusch, Honors Program director, said Sanders stands out among the hundreds of high-achieving Honors students he's worked with throughout his time with the program.

Beyond academics

In addition to his academic and research success, Sanders is a successful triathlete who traveled to Arizona to compete at the collegiate national level of competition.

An athlete in high school, Sanders had trouble motivating himself to stay fit when he came to campus his freshman year. But he soon discovered the university's Triathlon Club and eventually served as the team's co-captain.

"Instead of focusing only on intense competition, I worked to evolve the club into a community of individuals passionate about maintaining fitness and having fun," Sanders said.

Likewise, he said, teaching the basics to newcomers to the university's salsa dance club "cleared my thoughts and replenished my energy to overcome challenges faced in life, education and research."

His leadership in extracurricular activities is another example of his varied interests and reflects UW-Eau Claire's commitment to ensure that students can pursue multiple passions, faculty said.

"Tayo's success as a Rhodes scholar is a credit not only to this remarkable young man, but also to our institution," Dahl said. "Over my years working with him, I took notice of the many other experiences that enhanced Tayo's education at UWEC —the Honors Program, Campus Ambassadors, the McNair program, the Triathlon Club —the opportunities are almost too numerous to mention. This level of recognition speaks to the fact that we offer an outstanding range of opportunities for all students that choose UW-Eau Claire, and I hope that this high-profile award will encourage prospective students to pursue their dreams with us."

A select group

Sanders is the second UW-Eau Claire student to win the prestigious Rhodes scholarship; Chauncy S. Harris Jr. earned the honor in 2005.

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. The award averages about $50,000 per year and covers all costs for two or three years of study at the prestigious Oxford University.