Central High School graduate becomes first Rhodes Scholar from Philadelphia public schools

A Central High School graduate has been named one of this year’s Rhodes scholars, making him the first student from Philadelphia public schools to receive the prestigious scholarship. Abdulrahman El-Sayed, who graduated from Central in 2020, is among the 32 American students selected for the 2023 Rhodes class. He will pursue a master’s degree in global governance and diplomacy at the University of Oxford in England.

El-Sayed, who is currently a senior at Harvard University majoring in government and economics, said he was “shocked and humbled” by the news. He credited his teachers and mentors at Central for inspiring him to pursue his academic and career goals.

Central High School graduate becomes first Rhodes Scholar from Philadelphia public schools
Central High School graduate becomes first Rhodes Scholar from Philadelphia public schools

“I owe so much to Central High School and the Philadelphia public school system,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity to learn from amazing teachers and peers, and to explore my interests and passions. I hope that my story can inspire other students from Philly to dream big and work hard.”

A passion for public service and social justice

El-Sayed, who is the son of Egyptian immigrants, said he developed a passion for public service and social justice at a young age. He witnessed the challenges faced by his parents and other immigrants in the U.S., as well as the political upheavals in his ancestral homeland during the Arab Spring.

He also experienced discrimination and bullying because of his Muslim faith and his name, which he said motivated him to speak out against injustice and advocate for marginalized communities.

“I realized that I had a responsibility to use my voice and my privilege to make a positive difference in the world,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the root causes of the problems that affect people’s lives, and how to design and implement effective solutions.”

At Central, he was involved in various extracurricular activities, such as the debate team, the chess club, the math club, and the Model United Nations. He also volunteered at a local mosque and a food bank, and interned at the office of U.S. Representative Dwight Evans.

At Harvard, he continued his academic and civic engagement, serving as the president of the Harvard College Democrats, the co-chair of the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative, and the editor-in-chief of the Harvard International Review. He also conducted research on topics such as democracy, human rights, and economic development, and worked as a teaching assistant and a tutor.

A vision for the future

El-Sayed said he plans to pursue a career in public policy and diplomacy, with the aim of addressing the global challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, inequality, and conflict. He said he hopes to work for the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, or a non-governmental organization.

He said he is excited to join the Rhodes community, which includes some of the most influential leaders and thinkers in history, such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

“I am honored and grateful to be part of this amazing network of scholars and leaders,” he said. “I look forward to learning from them and contributing to their efforts to make the world a better place.”

The Rhodes Scholarship, established in 1902, is one of the oldest and most prestigious international scholarships in the world. It covers all expenses for two or three years of study at Oxford, as well as providing personal and professional development opportunities. The selection criteria include academic excellence, leadership potential, and commitment to service.

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