Every year, 11 of Canada's top university students are selected to attend Oxford University in England on Rhodes Scholarships. The prestigious awards, each worth more than $100,000, are allocated on a regional basis, with British Columbia receiving one and the Maritimes getting two.
But in a curious twist, one of this year's Maritimes winners hails not from New Brunswick, PEI or Nova Scotia, but from Kelowna.
"Actually, the last question I had in my [selection]interview was, 'Do you think you have a connection to the Maritimes?' " said 22-year-old Rhodes scholar Kelly O'Connor, who studies international relations at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.
"And I really think I do now, after being there for four years," added Ms. O'Connor, who is home with her family for the Christmas holidays.
She is hesitant to identify herself as an overachiever. However, since arriving at Mount Allison, not only has Ms. O'Connor been a straight-A student, but she has also been a member of the university's Rights and Democracy group, volunteered to help children with disabilities, participated in student government and written for the school newspaper. She also volunteered at a local hospital, travelled to Ghana and Cuba to do research, and worked as a Spanish tutor.
She is also the driving force behind the university's new Centre for International Studies, an initiative that, according to Mount Allison economics professor Frank Strain, likely pushed Ms. O'Connor's Rhodes candidacy over the top.
The centre puts on a weekly speaker series, organizes internships, plays host to an academic conference and publishes a journal.
"It's unique among universities in the world," Dr. Strain said. "There's just so much that went into it, it's just unbelievable … Kelly is quite an organized person."
As a Rhodes scholar, Ms. O'Connor joins an esteemed club that includes former U.S. president Bill Clinton, as well as recently retired Newfoundland premier Danny Williams and former Ontario NDP premier and current Liberal MP Bob Rae.
The scholarships were established by the will of Cecil Rhodes in 1902, with the aim of developing well-rounded leaders.
But Ms. O'Connor figures she may not be the sort of student Rhodes had in mind. She said that when Rhodes set out the initial criteria for who should get the scholarships, he envisioned an "Aryan ideal" of a young man who was good in sports.
As a result, women were excluded from the awards until 1977.
"I was never really involved in things that are competitive," she said. She was, however, a synchronized swimmer in high school and has been playing intramural badminton, volleyball and soccer while attending Mount Allison.
She also has her own ideas about what it means to be a leader.
"I don't think being a leader means you're necessarily in charge but you're somebody who really uses their talents and their time in the service of others. That's the type of person that I'd like to be," she said.
When she attends Oxford next October, Ms. O'Connor plans to work toward a master's degree in refugee and forced migration studies. After that, she hopes to go to law school and eventually land a job at a non-governmental organization.
"I would love to work for the International Red Cross or for Amnesty International or for Human Rights Watch," she said.
It's a unique career path in a family in which both parents are doctors, one brother is in nursing at UBC Okanagan and the other is attending medical school in Australia. But it's also one that has her parents respect and admiration.
"Kelly has always had a keen interest in ongoing learning and exploring new things," said Ms. O'Connor's mother, Linda Hawker. "I guess we thought it would lead somewhere, but we just didn't know where."
As for her father, when asked how he reacted to the news that his daughter had won a Rhodes Scholarship, Gary O'Connor, replied, "blown away, I guess, would be a good term."
Special to The Globe and Mail