Paulina Thurmann, a senior at Gonzaga, turned a major change of plans into an academic accomplishment.
Thurmann qualified for the Rhodes Scholarship finalists this past year, one of 16 in the scholarship’s 14th District (Idaho, Montana, Washington, Alaska and Oregon). She was one out of the 953 United States students who applied to make it this far.
“Finals weekend was unreal," Thurmann said in an email. "The candidates in the room — 15 others plus me — absolutely blew me away with their passion, resolve, confidence, go-get-‘em attitudes and off the charts emotional intelligence."
Cecil Rhodes founded the Rhodes Scholarship in 1903 with the goal of instilling a sense of civic-mindedness among graduate students across nations. Famous affiliates of the program include journalist Rachel Maddow, current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow. The program has a 0.7% acceptance rate.
It is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world.
Thurmann grew up in San Jose, California. She went on to study sociology at Gonzaga University, with double minors in leadership studies and solidarity and social justice.
When choosing colleges, she cited GU’s community as a deciding factor.
“I chose to come to Gonzaga for the community. It’s a cheesy answer, and a lot of people give it, but it’s true,” Thurmann said. “I remember on my tour of Gonzaga the hordes of kids yelling things like ‘Go Zags!’ and ‘We love freshman’ as I was walking through the campus. I immediately felt welcomed, and I wanted to be a part of the love that was so clearly evident around campus. My decision was easy."
In her time at GU, she got herself involved with campus ministry, as well as working in the Campus Kitchens. Thurmann also is an active member of the Comprehensive Leadership Program and the Honors Program.
“Honors was my first exposure to that ‘intellectually charged’ environment I felt in the finalist room,” Thurmann said. “My freshman colloquium, I remember feeling like this classroom held that one overly excited/passionate/engaged kid from every other previous [high school and college] classroom I’d ever been in — myself included. Feeling like I belonged in this crowd from the start of college helped me to gain the confidence and self-assuredness to put myself out there and apply to Rhodes in the first place.”
On campus, she found mentors in many of her major classes and university ministry — people she describes as intellectually driven, curious and doers. For her, the greatest joy in learning is sharing that knowledge with others in an empowering way.
Thurmann wasn’t sure if she should apply for the scholarship. In fact, she said that her plans were to work at a Christian camp and mentor young girls. However, thanks to the pandemic, her schedule opened up.
“At this point, I figured I don’t have much to lose given a suddenly open schedule, so I was open to doing the deep self-discernment which the application required," Thurmann said. "And sure enough, that discernment took a lot of time. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, had [COVID-19] not interfered with my original summer plans.”
When news of her accomplishment broke, her friends were full of support and love for her.
“I was stoked," said close friend Michael Larson. "When I had heard that she was a finalist part of me was in awe and the other part of me knew that she is the caliber of person they are looking for in a Rhodes Scholar. While I had the opportunity to walk with Paulina in this process, I also was able to dive deeper into a friendship with her and really get to know her heart."
Though she did not ultimately get the scholarship, becoming a finalist is a massive accomplishment in its own right.
“I’m so glad I took that risk, and elated that despite all the bad news of the world, we’ve at least got a few committed Earth-shakers who are ready and willing to roll their sleeves up and get into the ‘dirty work’ of true social change," Thurmann said. "Myself included."
In her free time, she enjoys cooking, gardening, reading, taking her dog Eeyore on walks and playing piano.
“I think the biggest advice that I would give to anyone pursuing a goal is to seize the moment at which the goal is attainable, or within sight," Thurmann said. "When I was thinking about applying for Rhodes, one of my best friends told me that I would forever regret it if I didn’t apply and at least try.”
It's this attitude that drives her to continue achieving and she hopes the same for anyone else.
“I have no doubt that Paulina Thurmann is going to change this world," Larson said. "I would recommend that you get her autograph now. She's going to be doing big things in the future."