Rhodes Scholarship finalist found her voice, sharpened her skills through application process

Briseyda Barrientos-Ariza ’22 shares her experience with the Office of Competitive Fellowships & Awards and offers some advice for current students

By Rebecca Kirkman on January 24, 2023

Briseyda poses for photo
(Alex Wright / Towson University)

Briseyda Barrientos-Ariza ’22, a first-generation U.S. citizen and first-generation college graduate, had never heard of the Rhodes Scholarship—or any other postgraduate award opportunities—until staff at the Honors College and Mary Devadas, associate professor of chemistry and director of competitive fellowships and awards at TU, recognized her leadership and academic achievement and suggested she apply.

Less than a year later, Barrientos-Ariza made Towson University history with Rasul Wright ’22 as the university’s second and third Rhodes Scholarship finalists. It was the first time TU had three nominees and two finalists in one year, with the only previous finalist in 2015.

The oldest and most celebrated international postgraduate award, the Rhodes Scholarship brings students with outstanding achievements to study at the University of Oxford in England. 

Many prestigious national and international awards like the Rhodes Scholarship are available to academically strong undergraduate and graduate TU students seeking to advance their educational and career goals.

To support students in pursuit of these opportunities, the Office of the Provost established the Office of Competitive Fellowships & Awards (CFA) in 2020. Led by Devadas, it works with campus partners including the Writing Center, Albert S. Cook Library and the Office of Study Abroad & Away to assist students throughout the application process.

Apply or Nominate a Student Now

The deadline for Rhodes Scholars internal nominations is Feb. 6. Several other competitive scholarships are currently in the nomination phase. 

Faculty interested in nominating students for these opportunities can do so here. For more information, visit the CFA webpage or contact for the Rhodes Scholarship nomination form.

We spoke via email with Barrientos-Ariza, a university scholar who majored in English literature and psychology, about her experience applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, working with the Office of Competitive Fellowships & Awards and her advice for current students.

Why were you interested in applying for awards like the Rhodes Scholarship?

These opportunities aligned with my overall mission of transforming our world through community, leadership, research and scholarship. As an ardent believer in the better world that is to come within our lifetime, postgraduate awards like the Rhodes catalyzed a tangible reality on how to effect necessary change and scholarship within our world.

Beyond this, awards like the Rhodes Scholarship are often comprised of alumni and current scholars from diverse communities that allow one to tap into global conversations that incite revolutionary thought aimed at transforming the world from our social positions and lived experiences by highlighting our similarities, differences and opportunities for collaboration and growth. 

How did the Office of Competitive Fellowships & Awards support you in the process?

Being first-generation in the United States and first-generation in attending and graduating from university, there was a historical and systemically imposed limited scope on my imaginational landscape regarding what I thought was academically possible; my community at TU and beyond shattered those limitations and expanded that scope. 

The breadth of knowledge and assistance the CFA office has provided in crafting my application and preparing me for my interviews has been immeasurable. From connecting me with past applicants to generating practice interviews alongside topical experts to working closely with directors and faculty, the CFA office has gone above and beyond in ensuring that I was not only supported in my application process but also as an individual outside of it. 

How have you grown from the experience?

I have emerged from this experience as an individual who is more confident about her skillset, work, leadership and ability to effect positive change in the world. 

Before beginning this process, I had not seriously thought about my postgraduate career journey, but these processes have allowed me to do exactly that alongside the guidance of directors and faculty who equally want the best for me. As an academic, leader and individual, I have grown in my abilities to verbalize my thoughts, put my commitments and motivations to action and articulate my ardent desires for the world. 

What advice would you give to TU students about building their own experiences to be competitive applicants?

It is never too early to start getting involved in research and your community. I encourage you to find your passions and pursue them exceptionally well in all the areas of your life: academic, personal, professional, etc. 

You can do this by building your community first. Befriend your professors—they will be indispensable in nominating you for awards and writing your recommendation letters—join organizations (or make them!) and jump onto the opportunities that present themselves to you. Do not be afraid to say “yes!” to things that seem out of reach, engage in research that is meaningful to you and make use of your resources, such as the CFA office, early on. 

Awards like the Rhodes Scholarship are interested in a visible and clear through-line or story across all your experiences that demonstrates leadership, commitment to the public good and scholarly prowess. It is better to have selected, specific and intentional involvement and activities that demonstrate your commitment to a particular subject and goal than to have a wide range of varying activities that simply make you seem like you were “padding your resume” during your undergraduate years.

What advice would you give to TU students about pursuing these opportunities?

Do not cut yourself short and do not lose yourself in the process of it all attempting to mimic a persona that is not you. I can tell you from the jump that being your authentic self––whatever that means to you––is the only way you will be able to land one of these national/global fellowships and awards. 

Yes, reach out to your community; you can learn from past finalists, awardees and mentors; heed their advice and trust their perspectives. But at the end of the day, it must be you on the page. This time is yours, and there is only ever going to be one you who applies, so own it.

Moreover, merely submitting an application to these awards is a significant accomplishment that you should be immensely proud of!