Joni Spencer just wrapped up her senior year at Florida International University (FIU) where she pursued bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics. After growing up in Antigua and Barbuda, Spencer wanted to reach for the stars—literally. While she studied at FIU, she participated in research that examined how biochemical reactions can help protect life in space.
Spencer knew she’d want to continue her studies after FIU, and she set her sights high by applying to the University of Oxford in the U.K.—and applying for a Rhodes scholarship that would help her pursue those advanced education opportunities. She was named a 2023 Rhodes Scholarship Finalist last fall, and is now planning her pursuit of a doctorate.
“I am going to the University of Oxford to obtain a doctorate starting this fall, and my biggest goal throughout my graduate journey is to learn as much as I can. I want to learn more about my field of study, and I'm currently in the process of collecting papers and textbooks that I will be reading after graduation. I also want to learn more about myself, both as an individual and as a researcher.”
Communication Skills Help Navigate Scholarship Application Process
Established in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship offers highly qualified students from around the world a fully-funded experience to pursue postgraduate coursework. To successfully attain a Rhodes Scholarship is a daunting undertaking, one requiring extensive work and a record of excellence in undergraduate academics, among other things. For Spencer, the two biggest tasks involved writing and communication.
“I wrote personal and academic statements, and I reached out to many professors at Oxford whose research I was interested in.”
Spencer says it was these two aspects of the application process that challenged her the most. The personal statement in particular was a significant undertaking.
“Writing was the skill that was most important to my success in reaching this goal. I wasn't allowed to get any outside feedback whatsoever on my personal statement, and it took a lot of thinking, planning, and editing before I was fully satisfied. I also stepped outside of my comfort zone, having been proactive in doing the necessary background reading and contacting and communicating with researchers at Oxford.”
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Leadership Skills Lead to Achieving Personal Goals
Reaching individual goals such as becoming a Rhodes Scholarship Finalist requires strong self-management and leadership skills, Spencer believes.
“Leadership is critical. I don't think our lives as we know them could exist the way they do without leadership. Good leaders build structure and are dependable. In the same way that I had many responsible leaders who have helped me be more structured throughout my life, I want to be that same kind of influence to others.”
The NSLS played a strong role in helping Spencer upskill as a leader, particularly with mapping out her goals.
"The NSLS has shifted my goal-setting process for the better. I am now a lot more pragmatic and flexible because of the NSLS, and I've seen it positively affect my leadership qualities."
Spencer admires leaders who step up and make bold decisions in support of a larger role on the world stage. Taking those larger, international roles requires a refined set of leadership skills, including a better understanding of how to communicate on a global scale.
“As someone who was born and raised in the Caribbean, I really admire Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. She has firmly established herself and her country on the world side in such a grounded yet firm way. She is truly a force to be reckoned with.”
Spencer’s Advice for Future Leaders
Spencer says one leadership lesson she learned at FIU and through her membership with the NSLS has served her especially well while she pursues her postgraduate plans and goals. It has to do with being open and authentic about the stumbles along the way.
“Be willing to talk about both successes and failures. I've become more accountable and open to constructive criticism from my support system, and that has been a constant motivation in my life for success.”
Spencer would also encourage future leaders to embrace objective self-understanding and awareness in order to reach their full potential. Being aware of the skills you’ve mastered as well as the ones you haven't yet helps you meet those challenges along the way more efficiently and effectively.
“Know your strengths and weaknesses, and use that to your advantage. Work in ways that maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Be honest with yourself. You can't become a better person if you can't clearly see the ways you need to improve. Teamwork is so important. Do not try to shoulder all the burden and responsibility when others are around you to help.”
For many members of the NSLS, graduation isn’t the end of academic life. Like Spencer, many of our members apply for postgraduate work. Here’s the story of another NSLS member who kept a foot in academia after graduating while also helping to put our mission in motion.