Georgia’s newest Rhodes scholars making a difference already

At first glance, Chelsea Jackson and Calvin Runnels have little in common.

They’re different genders, races, come from different states and attend different universities in Georgia.

However, there are some similarities. They’re campus leaders who are passionate about social justice, and they’re Georgia’s newest Rhodes scholars.

Jackson, 21, and Runnels, 20, received the honor, which is considered among the world’s most prestigious academic awards, this month.

“My jaw dropped…I’m still in shock,” said Jackson, an Emory student double-majoring in political science and African-American studies, who grew up in Lithonia.

“I was speechless,” said Runnels, a Georgia Tech student majoring in biochemistry from Baton Rouge, La.

Both students said they plan through their scholarships to explore ways to help others. Runnels, a transgender male, wants to find ways to increase diversity in science. Jackson hopes to examine potential criminal justice reforms that may reduce the use of solitary confinement and expand the maternal rights of incarcerated women. They will attend Oxford University in England this fall.

The two stood next to each other when the announcement was made. They became friends during the interview process over shared interests, such as being fans of hip hop star Kendrick Lamar. They’ve exchanged contact information and plan to connect at Oxford.

Runnels, a third-year student, has a 4.0 grade point average and is scheduled to graduate next year. Runnels said he chose Georgia Tech because he wanted to go somewhere he could get involved in social issues on campus.

Runnels was appointed earlier this semester to co-chair Georgia Tech’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Ally action team after the fatal police shooting in September of student Scout Schultz, who was president of Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance. The team’s recommendations included health care insurance coverage for transition-related medical expenses for transgender students and hiring counseling staff specifically trained in LGBTQIA-related areas.

“It’s one of the most important things I’ve done,” Runnels, who knew Schultz, said of his participation on the team.

Jackson, the first African-American student from Emory to earn a Rhodes Scholarship, is the sole bachelor’s/master’s degree candidate in political science. Her topic is examining what impact a prosecutor’s race can have on racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, such as whether to charge the accused with a felony or misdemeanor. Jackson, a senior, has a 3.9 grade point average.

Jackson helped restart Emory’s NAACP chapter, which produced programs to engage and help younger African-American students in the area. Jackson also co-founded a group to support African-American college students across metro Atlanta dealing with issues on their campuses, such as trying to get more African-American studies classes and input on their college presidential search process.

Jackson, a Southwest DeKalb High School graduate, said several professors have encouraged her to consider careers in their fields, which are traditionally more financially lucrative than her current goal of becoming a civil rights attorney, either with the U.S. Justice Department or a non-profit organization focused on social justice.

“I couldn’t do something if I wasn’t passionate about it,” Jackson said.

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