Skip to main content

Two Duke Seniors Named Rhodes Scholars

Laura Roberts and Jay Ruckelshaus are the 44th and 45th Duke students to win scholarship

2015 Rhodes Scholar Recipients Laura Roberts and Jay Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus photo by Garrett Harmsen
2015 Rhodes Scholar Recipients Laura Roberts and Jay Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus photo by Garrett Harmsen

Duke University seniors Laura Roberts of Dallas and John “Jay” Ruckelshaus of Indianapolis were among the 32 recipients selected this weekend for prestigious Rhodes Scholarships.

Roberts is a Global Human Rights Scholar and Lowell Aptman Prize finalist. Ruckelshaus is a Harry S. Truman Scholar and Angier B. Duke Scholar. They were chosen from among 869 applicants at 316 colleges and universities throughout the country, and are the 44th and 45th students in Duke's history to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. The scholarships provide all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. "For decades, the Rhodes Scholarship has been the highest honor awarded to undergraduates -- a recognition of extraordinary accomplishment and outstanding promise for the future," said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. "I am delighted that two Duke students have been chosen as Rhodes Scholars this year. Laura Roberts and Jay Ruckelshaus have immersed themselves in everything Duke has to offer and have made great contributions to this university. I know they will be exemplary Rhodes Scholars.”Roberts, a history major with a double minor in religion and political science, has been inducted into Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society and the Order of Omega Honor Society. Her academic work has focused on women, religion and politics in the Reformation, resulting in an article, “The Spiritual Singularity of Syon Abbey,” that was published in the Cornell Historical Society journal “Ezra’s Archives” this spring. She is continuing her research of women’s religious roles in the English Reformation for an honors thesis.

“Laura has a staying power, a capacity not just to engage an interest but to deepen it, broaden it, find new questions and contexts, and develop finer grained and more nuanced interpretations,” said Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Schaffer Professor of History at Duke. “Laura is one of those rare young people who will eventually lead organizations and inspire others. She will show others how to make their work more lasting, more enduring, by underpinning it with education, intellectual depth and moral clarity.”

At Duke, Roberts serves as vice president and director of Campus Affairs for the Duke International Relations Association. She is events chair for the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER), raising awareness for the mission of WISER school for girls in Kenya. She also serves on the Duke Human Rights Center Student Advisory Board, mentors elementary school girls through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and volunteers with Church World Services, providing ESL instruction and general guidance to refugees arriving in Durham.

Roberts interned at Freedom House in Washington, D.C., where she produced a report on women human rights defenders, among other responsibilities. She also has been a paid legal intern in the Dallas law firm of Fraley & Fraley, summarizing depositions of plaintiffs, defendants and expert witnesses.

"I am honored and humbled to have been selected as a Rhodes Scholar,” Roberts said Saturday evening. “Every finalist from District VIII was incredibly brilliant and kind, and I am honored to have been chosen from company such as theirs.”

Roberts plans to pursue a master’s of philosophy degree in British and European History at Oxford. Following Oxford, she plans to pursue a law degree and practice international law.

Ruckelshaus is a political science major with a triple minor in philosophy, history and English. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he is a recipient of the Duke Faculty Scholars Award, and was a Lord Rothermere Fellowship recipient for study in political theory at Oxford’s New College during summer 2013.

“Jay Ruckelshaus is a highly principled thought and action leader who will excel in his insatiable pursuit of scholarship and public service leadership,” said Anthony Brown, professor of the practice in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “While Jay’s intellect and accomplishments are stunning, his greatest strengths are his moral compass and his passionate commitment to a life of public service leadership.”

At Duke, Ruckelshaus serves as a student member of the Duke University Board of Trustees' Academic Affairs Committe, and as a senator in Duke Student Government. He is also co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of “Eruditio,” an undergraduate humanities academic journal; co-editor-in-chief of “Duke Political Science Standard,” Duke’s undergraduate political science academic journal; and associate editor of the “Duke Political Review.”

Ruckelshaus, who was paralyzed in a diving accident the summer before his freshman year, is the founder and president/CEO of Ramp Less Traveled, a nonprofit organization he created to support students with spinal cord injuries in pursuit of higher education. He advises the Shepherd Center advisory board on ways the rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta can improve the experiences of patient and their families. He is also a member of the U.S. International Council on Disability.This summer Ruckelshaus worked as a Montgomery Research Fellow for the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, where he investigated the legal history of lunch counter sit-in movements during the Civil Rights era. The previous summer, as a research assistant under Herbert Kitschelt, George V. Allen Professor on International Relations at Duke, Ruckelshaus conducted research on ways of conceptualizing political party corruption around the world. He also has worked as an intern with the Indiana State Government, collaborating with senior staff in the Office of Governor Mike Pence to research policy focusing on mental health and the criminal justice system.

Ruckelshaus’s public advocacy work includes organizing a conference on higher education and accessibility that was attended by more than 80 students, administrators, academics and advocates from across the nation. He also is chair and director of operations for the Accessibility Matters Campaign, encouraging students to use only accessible routes around Duke’s campus for one day each April.

Ruckelshaus’s articles have been published in a number of publications, and he presented his paper, “Identity, Automony, and the Essentiality of Disability: Reconsidering the Medical and Social Models,” to the North Carolina Undergraduate Research Conference in November 2014.

“I'm absolutely stunned to have been named a Rhodes Scholar,” Ruckelshaus said Saturday night. “I channel as much credit as possible to all those who've helped me get here, which is more than I could possibly name. Thank you to everyone! I embrace, excitedly and wholeheartedly and gratefully, the mission of the Rhodes Trust to fight the world's fight, to push forward with political theory and advocacy to a more inclusive democratic future." Ruckelshaus plans to pursue a master’s of philosophy degree in political theory at Oxford.

"Jay and Laura are outstanding scholars, but more importantly, such wonderful people,” said Alexander Hartemink, the faculty director of the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows.  “It has been a joy and privilege for me to get to know them and their stories through their preparation with the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows. I'm thrilled for them.”Rhodes Scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes. Recipients are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and a commitment to service, among other attributes.

The value of the Rhodes Scholarship varies depending on the academic field, and the degree (B.A., master's, doctoral) chosen. The Rhodes Trust pays all college and university fees, provides a stipend to cover necessary expenses while in residence in Oxford and during vacations, and transportation to and from England.

A complete list of this year's recipients is online at