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Alaskan from Noorvik named 2021 Rhodes Scholar

Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell is one of 32 Americans to be named a 2021 Rhodes Scholar.
Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell is one of 32 Americans to be named a 2021 Rhodes Scholar.(Photo courtesy of Wilfried Zibell)
Published: Nov. 27, 2020 at 3:43 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Last week, Harvard College student and Noorvik resident Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell got some exciting news. He was one of 32 Americans selected to attend the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

The Rhodes Scholarship funds two to three years of study at Oxford and has been awarded since 1904, with recipients including MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

Zibell, now a senior studying comparative literature, said applying for the scholarship was a 7-monthlong process that he began during a tumultuous time in his life.

All Harvard students had just been sent home due to concerns surrounding the transmission of COVID-19. Zibell was afraid of bringing the virus back home to Noorvik, a village in the Northwest Arctic Borough with a population of around 600 people and limited medical resources.

Instead, Zibell stayed in an apartment in Fairbanks. He began experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, which he struggled with for six weeks. It was around this time that a mentor at Harvard recommended he apply for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“If I’m honest, I think I agreed to it in a fever haze,” Zibell said. “I think I was like actively a little delirious because I had to go back a couple of days later and make sure I hadn’t dreamt the entire experience.”

Zibell had to secure a recommendation from Harvard before he could formally apply for the scholarship. As an Alaska resident, Zibell is one of two students from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon or Washington who were awarded the scholarship for District 14.

While at Harvard, Zibell has studied Yiddish and Inuit poetry, with a focus on Inupiaq poetry. His work has looked at how the displacement of people impacts their poetry and how their ideas of self are tied to subsistence living.

At Oxford, Zibell will pursue a master of philosophy in economic and social history. He wants to research the economic impact of colonialism on subsistence economies. He hopes to come back to Alaska in the near future to work on language revitalization and preservation efforts around the world.

“I think the most important thing for me was finding someone I wanted to do it for, finding something that drove me forward in wanting to succeed despite the odds,” Zibell said. “For me of course, that’s home, that’s the village.”

While not Inupiaq himself, Zibell has always been passionate about the language and representing people in remote areas of the state. In high school, Zibell was a member of the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development for two years, where he advocated for rural schools.

“Despite the fact that being from the village means we have much fewer resources academically, we can still do wonders with what resources we do have and also to make the case that villages are equally deserving of attention,” Zibell said.

Over 2,300 students applied for the Rhodes Scholarship this year, but only 953 were endorsed by their college to continue the application, the Rhodes Trust said in a release.

Zibell is one of six Harvard students to receive the honor this year.

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