Chicagoland

St. John Fisher alum wins coveted Rhodes scholarship

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
January 25, 2018

Thomas Dowling, a 2010 St. John Fisher School and 2014 St. Ignatius High School graduate, has been named a 2018 Rhodes Scholar. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Thomas Dowling has been a Truman Scholar, a Fulbright Scholar and now an esteemed Rhodes Scholar, but he’s also the proud holder of the record for most books read in one year at St. John Fisher School, 10200 S. Washtenaw Ave.

To earn that commendation, he read “every book in that library,” which totals “about 3,000 books,” the 21-year-old said.

“The boy was never without a book in his nose,” recalled Sister of St. Joseph Jean McGrath, principal of St. John Fisher School. 

Sister Jean, who has been principal for 30 years, said she was “delighted” but not surprised when she learned Dowling is a Rhodes Scholar. 
Rhodes Scholarships provide all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. While thousands of college students apply each year, the scholarships are  awarded to only 32 people.

Winning the Rhodes Scholarship is a high achievement, but Dowling, who will graduate from the University of Illinois in Champaign this spring with a bachelor’s in history and political science, isn’t really surprised. He began working to win the scholarship while a student at St. Ignatius College Prep, 1076 W. Roosevelt Road. 

“I had my sights set on this since my senior year in high school where I thought a lot of people that I respect who work in public service end up winning the Truman Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship and then they go in to public service,” he said. 

However, when he received the call from Oxford to make arrangements for starting there this fall, what he worked so hard for and achieved hit home. 

“Then it was like, ‘Wow, this is real. I’m going to be at Oxford next year.’”

Rhodes Scholars are chosen in a two-stage process. First, applicants must be endorsed by their college or university, which includes eight letters of recommendation. 

Selection committees in each of 16 U.S. districts then invite the strongest applicants to appear before them for a 20-minute interview. Two-hundred twenty-eight applicants from 100 different colleges and universities reached the final stage of the competition.

“I thought my second interview went horribly. I texted my mom and said, ‘This did not go well. Just pick me up. We’ll get out of here,’” he said. 

Dowling wants to enter the state legislature in Illinois when he finishes school. His passion for public service started at a young age. 

His mother is an Irish immigrant who came to Chicago when she was 21. His father died of a heart attack when he was just 3 years old, so she raised her three children on her own. 

The thing she wanted most for them was a good education, said Dowling, who is the oldest sibling and the first in his family to attend college. 

“His mother did such a fine job with the kids,” Sister Jean said, adding that Dowling’s intelligence was evident in the classroom. “You just knew he wasn’t just memorizing for the true and false responses. He was integrating what was being taught and wanting to understand it.” 

His mother sent her children to Catholic school using survivor’s benefits offered by the Social Security Administration for their tuition. 
“When I was 16 years old we thought those benefits were being cut off. We got a notification in the mail that we were no longer qualified,” he said.

His mother sat him down and shared that college might no longer be an option because of money.

Dowling didn’t give up. He picked up the phone and called every local, state and federal elected official he could think of. Two weeks later one of those phone calls worked and they learned there was an administrative error and the benefits were restored.

“That quite literally changed my life,” he said, because he saw how one person, some unknown staffer, taking a few minutes of their day to look into the issue and straighten it out, enabled him to go to college. 

Topics:

  • catholic schools

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