Two Philadelphia-area students score prestigious Rhodes Scholarships

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Meghan Shea, left, and Spencer Dunleavy, right, were named Rhodes Scholars. Dunleavy is pictured with his mother, Cindy Halbherr.

One is a West Chester native and Stanford University senior who as a 6-year-old proudly predicted that she would grow up to study the environment.

The other is a chemistry major at Harvard University whose glittering academic career at Masterman High School earned him a prestigious $250,000 college scholarship.

After this weekend, both of these Philadelphia-area young people, Meghan Shea and Spencer Dunleavy, can add another accolade to their resumes: Rhodes Scholar.

"Definitely in shock," said Shea, 22.

"It's hard to describe it," said Dunleavy, also 22.

Rhodes Scholarships are widely considered among the most distinguished honors for young intellectuals, providing two or three years of expenses-paid graduate study at England's Oxford University, one of the finest academic institutions in the world.

Previous Rhodes Scholars include former President Bill Clinton and current Defense Secretary Ash Carter. This year, nearly 900 students from 311 American colleges and universities applied for just 32 scholarships, which, in pure monetary terms, are worth about $68,000 a year.

But Shea, a graduate of Unionville High School, said she saw firsthand during the application process that the value of the program will go far beyond tangible benefits.

"All of the other finalists were doing the coolest work in disciplines I didn't even know existed," she said. "I'm really excited to get to learn with this network of people."

Shea is already an accomplished scholar. Among other honors, she was named one of Popular Mechanics' top 10 innovators of 2013 thanks to a filter she designed to remove E. coli bacteria from water. She was just 18 at the time.

At Stanford, as a student of environmental systems engineering, she has spent various terms studying the ocean in Hawaii and aboard a ship that sailed from Tahiti.

"I've been interested in the ocean for as long as I can remember," she said, and even as a child would tell people she wanted to become a marine biologist.

At Oxford, Shea plans to study in a program focused on nature, society, and environmental governance. She said the program, which is grounded in social science, should complement her undergraduate coursework, which was more data-heavy.

For Dunleavy, the Rhodes opportunity will put medical school on hold.

The native of Northeast Philadelphia said he plans to pursue two master's degrees at Oxford, one focusing on education research methodology, the other on primary-care research methods.

His goal is to become a primary-care doctor in low-income neighborhoods, and he hopes the degrees from Oxford can help position him to be both a better caregiver and educator for patients.

"There's not as much prestige or money in [primary care], but it affects millions of people in the United States," he said.

Dunleavy, who in 2012 earned a Leonore Annenberg Scholarship for $250,000 toward whichever college he chose to attend, said his motivation comes from growing up in a working-class household. Neither of his parents was a college graduate, and he credits family, friends, and other mentors for pushing him toward Harvard and now Oxford.

"You can come from a low-socioeconomic, low-educational background and you can learn and harness your desires and energies to get to this point," he said. "And I now have this opportunity to . . . give back to people who have given me so much."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

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