Villanova University basketball star Jessica Wamala was so high off the news that she’d been selected as a Rhodes Scholar that she could have literally levitated right off the ground.
Wamala joins an elite and extremely exclusive company as a Division I NCAA athlete — she was the captain of the Villanova basketball team — who was also selected to study abroad. Myron Rolle, who was an All-American defensive back for Florida State Seminoles’ football team and projected first-round pick, was the last big-time athlete-turned-Rhodes scholar four years ago.
She’s also the third person from the university to be so honored, joining track and field, cross country’s Nnenna Lynch (1993) and Becky Spies (1995).
Funny how this suburban Boston native, whose academic prowess was such that she was offered a presidential scholarship for academics to Villanova and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in liberal arts with three majors; and, after five years, is about to procure her master’s degree, initially thought that being picked to study at arguably the world’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, Oxford University, was beyond her.
Wamala talks about the level of discipline, focus and prioritizing required to build and sustain a spectacular academic career worthy of consideration for a Rhodes Scholarship.
“I think the way I did it was from time management and really understanding priorities. And I think that coming into college, you really don’t know how these three things are really going to conflict — social life and really having fun; sports and really being good at it; and the classroom and really being able to perform academically,” she said. “The one thing that you have to understand is that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. And I did make sacrifices. While I did go out, there were nights where my friends went out, but I had to study for a test and then the next day I had to be on the road for basketball; so [making] sacrifices and maintaining a priority, and then maintaining that every time you wake up. When you are practicing, you can’t do your homework. When you’re doing your homework, you can’t be having fun; and when you are having fun, you can’t be sleeping. You have to understand how to take care of your body, take care of your mind, take care of your health.
I think that my motto is always going to be in order be successful, you’re going to have to be prepared, and to be prepared you have to understand that you have to make sacrifices and really manage my time.”
Born and raised in Lowell, Mass., about a half-hour drive outside Boston, Wamala was offered scholarships to play basketball at Division II and III schools, but had her heart set on playing Division I ball, so she walked on during her sophomore year.
That decision to go to Villanova changed the course of her life forever.
Villanova is an elite school that encourages students to study abroad. That combined with the fact that Wamala was extremely community oriented and played ball while holding down a near 4.0 grade point average set her apart from her peers and fellow candidates who all coveted a Rhodes Scholarship.
“Three things that help you in the application process for any scholarship, including a Rhodes Scholarship —academics, leaderships, community service. I dedicated myself to homelessness work in Philadelphia at (one of the largest homeless shelters) in the United States. I did a lot of advancing myself. Last summer I interned as the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia,” said Wamala.
“It was awesome. I had a great time. It’s a very vibrant place to be,” Wamala said of Serbia. “And this past summer at Washington I was working in the (United States) State Department” in the Division of Near Eastern Affairs.”
All of those things combined put Wamala in the running. But what happened when she found out that she actually won?
“It was definitely overwhelming and surreal. I wasn’t overly expressive because you interview with all of the candidates and then you find out at the exact same time in the same room with all the people there. I just cracked a smile and was shocked. And then I left in the room with the judges and then I was able to let go.”
Wamala said when she attends Oxford beginning this fall, she plans to get her master’s in philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, “to really understand international studies from a different lens, especially since I never studied abroad. Villanova really encourages its students to study overseas, but I couldn’t since my basketball season started in August and ends in May.”
She said she is grateful for all the people who pushed her and encouraged her to apply for the scholarship and get active in the community.
“I was being promoted and pushed for it from a beginning,” she said. “They were encouraging me for more than basketball and a bachelor’s degree, so then I started doing internships and career development things, which would help me in the application process.”
Besides, while Wamala loved basketball, she was not interested in having her life defined by it.
“It’s different; during your sophomore year is where your begin to prioritize for the next four years and beyond. At first, I wasn’t excited about my life being defined by sports. I was really interested in pursuing academics and political science and really saw law in my future. But sports brings attention to you. Junior year, I focused on applying for colleges based on academics.”