Bertha Tobias ’23 honored as Rhodes Scholar
As she waited in line to go through Customs and Immigration at LAX, CMC senior Bertha Tobias ’23 learned that she had just been named the fourth Rhodes Scholar in Claremont McKenna College history.
Only the day before, Tobias had been in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the Rhodes Trust had invited her to complete rigorous in-person interviews.
Tobias was one of eight finalists from the Rhodes Trust’s South African constituency, comprised of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, and Eswatini (BLNMS countries), all of whom were competing for the single scholarship. In a statement, the Rhodes Trust said that Tobias was the selection committee’s unanimous choice for this prestigious award.
When Tobias, who is a Namibian national, realized that she had been selected as the Rhodes Scholar she said she took some deep breaths and tried not to hug the random stranger standing in front of her at customs.
Upon her selection, Tobias became Claremont McKenna’s second female Rhodes Scholar, following Sarah Chen ’22, who became the first in 2021. She is also the fourth Rhodes Scholar in Namibian history. The Rhodes Scholarship is the world’s preeminent and oldest graduate fellowship.
Tobias, an International Relations major with a sequence in Leadership Studies, is set to graduate from CMC this December. She’ll head to the United Kingdom in August, and in October join a cohort of more than a hundred scholars from around the world to undertake fully funded post-graduate studies at the University of Oxford, “becoming part of a strong community of young leaders determined to make a positive difference in the world,” according to the Rhodes Trust.
At Oxford, Tobias plans to pursue two Master of Science degrees: one in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment, and a second in Water Science, Policy and Management.
As part of her studies at CMC, she has cultivated and defined her academic focus area in energy and resource management in emerging economies, taking courses across the 5Cs “that looked at the intersection of power and politics and how historical relationships can affect energy policy,” she said. “I had never thought about the environment in terms of politics. I'd always thought about it in terms of science. But thinking about it in terms of history was more aligned with what I’m interested in, which is international relations and global governance.”
Tobias is currently working on her senior thesis about “Namibia’s oil and gas discoveries, and how they can maximize their bargaining power and production sharing agreements” and frequently contributes opinion pieces on energy to The Namibian, the oldest and largest newspaper in Namibia.
Her interest in water science stems from challenges faced by her home country. “One of Namibia’s biggest environmental vulnerabilities is a water shortage,” she said. “We have chronic drought and we just don’t have resilient water infrastructure to be responsive to climate change.”
She credits Brian Davidson ’08, Director of Fellowship Advising at CMC and Interim Director of the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, with encouraging her to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. Daunted at first by the low acceptance rate, she nevertheless applied, working on her application essays over the summer with Davidson.
Key to her Rhodes preparation was the mock interview Davidson organized with a committee of academics and non-academics. “They asked a lot of questions that prompted me to ask myself introspective questions even beyond the application,” she recalled.
The mock interview helped ready her for the formal Rhodes interviews, but it was “all the networking events” she attended at CMC that prepared her for the formal dinner hosted by Rhodes as part of the selection process. “I always joke that there’s no way you can graduate from CMC without attending at least one dinner where you’re wearing a suit and you have to schmooze and shake hands and that was actually really helpful,” she said. “I was very comfortable introducing myself.”
At CMC, she has served in roles with the Office of Admission, as a student representative on the College’s Advancement Committee, and with the Kravis Leadership Institute.
During her summers as a CMC student, Tobias also secured funding from the Soll Center for Student Opportunity, the Kravis Lab for Social Impact, and the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, to produce the first season of her own television series, Spotlight, which chronicles stories of young entrepreneurs in Namibia. To produce her second season, she earned a grant from Projects for Peace.
In Namibia, she also helped lead the #shutitalldown national movement against Sexual and Gender Based Violence, and its public service that’s on her radar once she’s completed her studies at Oxford.
“I definitely want a career in Namibia, particularly a political career in public service, that's a long-term plan,” she said.
A plan that Davidson thinks she is prepared to fulfill.
“Bertha is a force of nature: a strong and capable leader who throws herself into all manner of projects,” Davidson said. “It has been inspiring to work with her, as well as to see her clarify and refine her goals and ambitions. She is somebody who I think has the potential to be a truly transformative leader, and so I’m delighted that the Rhodes Trust has chosen to invest in her. It will pay off.”