Arlingtonian sits down with Henry Wu to discuss his Rhodes Scholarship and his time at UAHS.
BY JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23
Late last year, Henry Wu, a 2016 UAHS alum, was announced as a 2020 recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship. Wu was one of 32 Americans and 100 students total to receive the prestigious scholarship, which was established in 1902 and allows students to study at Oxford University in England.
The Rhodes Trust, the organization behind the scholarship, selects students on the basis of academic achievement, drive, character and other factors. Prominent past winners include former President Bill Clinton, astronomer Edwin Hubble, and U.S. diplomat Susan Rice.
Wu graduated from OSU earlier this year, majoring in philosophy and political science, and at Oxford will pursue degrees in migration studies and public policy. Once he returns to the United States, Wu plans to go to law school before becoming a practicing attorney with a focus on human trafficking and immigration issues.
Q: Could you start by telling us a bit about your work with human trafficking?
WU: I grew up in UA, and I went to [UAHS], and I didn’t really understand some of the issues that were facing the central Ohio community. And so, in my [freshman year at OSU], I, along with some other students, got to hear from people working in the community — [people] who work in nonprofits, community leaders, and also survivors of human trafficking. Their stories were incredibly inspiring.
We felt a sense in which this was an issue that was happening just a couple of miles away from our classroom, and we felt a sense of duty of giving back to the community and focusing on this issue. And so from there it really took off. In the beginning we were much more focused on awareness, and education, because we realized that as college students there’s not a whole lot we can do — I mean, we’re not police officers, we’re not lawyers, we’re not doctors. And so, we found our capacity quite limited. But I think later on, what we worked on really fell into place.
We started a student organization that later became a nonprofit called Enlighten. And we started working with some local nonprofits that deliver educational materials and bars of soap labelled with human trafficking hotline number to local area hotels. And then in my senior year we actually were able to start this partnership with the law school at OSU, and we started working with juvenile victims of human trafficking. The law school, they have a clinic that represents them in legal proceedings. And we were there essentially for support. And so we did fun activities: we took them to COSI, we took them to these outings that made them feel like a kid again, because they’ve gone through such terrible things, and they’re high school- or even younger-aged. And so we took on that opportunity as a kind of mentorship role, and as an opportunity to assist the really busy lawyers and social workers and case managers who were focused on the other end of things, but not so much on maybe some of the more recreational events.
Q: Was there a specific moment that inspired you to take on that challenge? Or was it more gradual?
WU: I think it’s interesting, because in the beginning, I actually felt like there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. [I’d] heard people who were survivors of human trafficking talk about their experience and it was incredibly inspiring, but again, as college students I felt like it was difficult for us to get involved. And I don’t think it was a single moment. It was a journey and a process. The more you learn, the more you figure out how you can make an impact — how you can make a difference.
Q: What prompted you to take that work, and then to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship?
WU: I’m not sure if this is a normal answer. In my freshman year, I was very lucky to have actually gone to the UK on a different kind of scholarship-fellowship. The summer after my freshman year, I was lucky enough to go to the UK on what’s called a Fulbright summer institute. I was at the University of Bristol, and Bristol UK was one of the largest slave ports during the transatlantic slave trade. And so, I saw that experience as incredibly eye-opening, exploring the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, while I was working on modern forms of slavery. And I think once I did that, I had an idea of what the fellowship process was like, for applying to these things: getting tons of recommendation letters, going through the process of revising personal statements — it’s almost like applying for college again. But I think because I had that initial experience, I knew what was going on and I was maybe a little prepared for the process. For example, for the Rhodes Scholarship, you have to be nominated by your school, and so, you essentially apply to your school first, and then you apply to the actual thing. So I think I was just a little prepared for that, because I had some prior experience.
Q: Could you describe your reaction to being selected?
WU: Yeah, it’s almost like a reality TV show, because after your interview you’re waiting for a super long time. It was held at our location, our district’s. So it was Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois, and our interview site was at the Chicago History Museum. It was like the whole morning was interviews, and then after we’re done, we’re just sitting and waiting around, and there [were], I think, 13 other finalists who were also interviewing for it. And we’re just kind of getting to know each other, hanging out, and I remember because when they finally had this decision, the judges come out into the room and make everyone stand up, and then they announce it. I think my first reaction was kind of shock. There’s another kid who was also from Ohio, who also won, and his name [also started with a ‘w’], and so, when they first announced his name, because it’s alphabetical, I was like, OK, there’s no way I’m getting it. And then they announced my name, and I think I just ran over and gave him a hug or something. And that’s all I remember.
Q: On the whole, what do you hope to get out of this experience?
WU: So, I feel what people often may not even realize about the Rhodes Scholarship is that it’s such a global community. The U.S. has 32 Rhodes Scholars, and every year, when they announce them, there [are] news reports about 32 American Rhodes Scholars, but there [are] actually a hundred Rhodes Scholars in the entire year, and they come from all different sorts of countries. I think being in Oxford and being in such a global community — Oxford already is a top university that attracts the best students from all around the world. I think that’s going to be incredibly eye-opening, and I’m looking forward to learning from other students from all sorts of different places: what they’re experiences are — and getting that global awareness.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the future from this experience?
WU: After Oxford I’ll be headed back home to law school, and so I still have five years of schooling ahead of me, but I’m very interested in actually practicing as a lawyer. I work a lot with lawyers, during my involvement with issues relating to human trafficking, and I that’s where I think I’m going to focus. But I’m pretty open about exactly what kind of law I want to practice, whether that’s more criminal justice-related, or more international. I’m still open on that. But I think my previous experiences working on human trafficking, immigration issues — that’s going to shape my journey forward as a lawyer.
Q: Did your time at UAHS prepare you in any way for what’s to come and your work today?
WU: It’s kind of a mixed bag. It’s not that I don’t think that Upper Arlington prepared me well; it’s that I don’t think I was the best student in high school. And to be honest, I think in high school I was really just trying to rush through, and [to] get to college as quickly as I could. When I was in high school, I was one of those kids [where] you just care about your grades, your GPA, you’re trying to take classes that give you a weighted GPA, and I can’t say that I really enjoyed the process of learning. So just reflecting on my own experiences, I think I didn’t take advantage of some of the resources that [UAHS] had to offer, because I was so focused on [the] getting to college step. I really enjoyed speech and debate when I was in high school, and so, I felt like that was such an incredible opportunity to learn by yourself, and pursue independent learning. I also was involved in science research, where I went to OSU to work on science projects, and that was a great experience. Going back on it, I think I felt maybe constricted by just high school, but being in so many classes, and being in a stressful environment when you’re a high school student, and not taking advantage of opportunities to really fall in love with the topics you’re learning about.
Q: To that point, what would be your advice for a high school student today at UAHS?
WU: Yeah, I think that’s related: don’t do as I do, do as I say. I think high school is a great time to get to know yourself, get to understand what you’re interested in, what you’re studying, and I think for a lot of people, you just keep getting caught up in the rush of so many different things that you let the opportunities pass.
This transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.