Excerpt from Ericka Wheeler’s Personal Statement as a Rhodes Scholar Finalist
Nestled on the outskirts of a sleepy Delta town, a charming home surrounded by wildlife housed a family destined for greatness. “Our neighbors were white-tailed deer and teeming kudzu,” reflects Ericka Wheeler, Rhodes Scholar from Millsaps College. “I spent a lot of my time catching frogs, grasshoppers, and riding on dirt roads on the back of a four-wheeler.”
Wheeler’s childhood memories revolve around the outdoors, spending time at her parents’ clinic in Greenwood, bedtime stories with her Grandma, and days in the Greenwood Public School System. For Wheeler and her six siblings, getting a solid education was vital. “Even as a little girl, Ericka was always surrounded by books,” reflects her grandmother, Maye D. Martin. “She always asked me to read to her and she loved to play school. She had an innate curiosity for learning.”
After spending forty-two years teaching in the public school system, Martin continued educating. Her new focus was family. Martin watched her grandchildren every Friday, always armed with pencils, paper and a writing starter kit. “I wanted to teach Ericka and her siblings about phonics, how to read and write. I taught them to use adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors in their sentences, because it made their writing come alive!”
Wheeler attended first grade at Davis Elementary School in Greenwood, and her reading skills stunned the faculty. Martin laughs, “She was reading to her class and her teacher was astonished and thought, ‘How is she reading?’ The teacher left the room in a hurry, grabbed another teacher and they both returned to listen to Ericka read.”
Wheeler continued to impress. With a hint of perfectionism and a drive to succeed, she soared through school with high marks. “When I was applying to colleges, I had two sisters who were attending Millsaps College and they told me how much they loved it. I knew I wanted to attend a smaller college and I spent the summer after high school graduation studying Chemistry there and the people were always so friendly.” Wheeler smiles, “So, I decided to stay.”
Millsaps only fueled her love of learning. With a goal of attending Medical School, Wheeler initially intended to major in Chemistry, but she had a change of heart. “During my freshman year while taking required core classes, my history and literature books were speaking to me in ways that challenged me to re-think my own identity and the world around me. I decided it would be more beneficial and fun to explore this more during my undergraduate years and enjoy deeper science lessons later in medical school.” Martin was surely beaming with pride.
During her junior year, Millsaps history professor Dr. Robert McElvaine approached Wheeler about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship. Wheeler admits, “The toughest part was writing my personal statement.” Her writing struck a chord, and was inspired by her greatest mentor, her Grandma.
Wheeler became a Rhodes Scholar Finalist. Joined by her mother and Martin, Wheeler traveled to Alabama for her final interviews. After three hours of debating, the scholarship recipients were announced. “My name was called and I remember my eyes tearing up in shock. It would take weeks for it to sink in,” she smiles. Wheeler became the first African-American woman to be awarded the coveted Rhodes Scholarship in Mississippi.
Even Martin was recognized. “One of the judges came out and said, ‘Ericka, I want to meet your grandmother.’ He introduced himself and said he had read her personal statement about me. I was so proud. When Ericka learned how to read, I taught her how to write,” she says.
Wheeler is currently studying in Oxford, England, and will attend the distinguished Mayo Medical School upon her return. “I am honored to serve as a role model for Mississippi girls and I hope to inspire them to push beyond the scope of what they’re used to thinking is possible,” she says.