After being selected Saturday for a 2013 Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, the Idaho Falls, Idaho-raised Thiel said he wasn't sure where to begin analyzing the decision that makes him the third Bobcat in the past six years to earn the prestigious honor.
"It was pretty surreal," Thiel said of hearing the announcement that he'd been picked from such a talented group of students after a two-day selection process in Seattle. "I had very low expectations for having my name called. But to have (the selection panel) decide to make this investment in me is very humbling and just emphasizes how important it is for me to pay that investment forward."
When Thiel heads to Great Britain in October, he plans to pursue master's degrees in public policy and the economics of development. Thiel, who came to MSU as a Presidential Scholar, is set to graduate in May with a double major in chemical engineering and liberal studies.
Otto Stein, professor of civil engineering and faculty adviser to Engineers Without Borders at MSU, said he had little doubt that Thiel would get the scholarship.
"He's pretty much the most incredible student I've ever met," Stein said. "And on top of the other accolades and accomplishments, he is an exceptional communicator. I'm not surprised at all that when he was put in an oral interview situation he rose to the top."
Stein added that he is equally sure Thiel will excel during his time at Oxford.
Being named as one of 32 Americans selected for Rhodes Scholarships punctuates a remarkable run for Thiel at MSU, where the honors student carries a 3.96 grade-point average.
As a freshman, Thiel jumped in and worked as a reporter at the MSU Exponent, the student newspaper. Drawing on his high school experience with debate, he also quickly got involved with an Ethicats Ethics Bowl team. That team went on to take a second-place finish in a national ethics competition.
As a junior he became an Associated Students of MSU senator. While serving with ASMSU, Thiel said he was most interested in seeing that body become more representative of and accessible to the university's students. To that end, Thiel and his fellow ASMSU members reformed the body so that each college could elect representatives to it.
Then in September of 2011, Gov. Schweitzer tapped Thiel to be student representative to the Montana Board of Regents.
Throughout his MSU career, Thiel has been active in EWB, including taking part in two trips to Africa to work on clean water projects for schools in Kenya's rural Khwisero district. Also with EWB, Thiel worked on writing grants and helped lead a fundraising effort that pulled in $100,000 for those projects.
On top of all that, in August, Thiel married his high school sweetheart, Bizz Browning, who is also an MSU senior.
Thiel said the aspects of his MSU career that have most impacted his worldview are his time with Ethicats, his two trips to Kenya with EWB, and his selection as student representative to the Board of Regents.
"All of those activities come down to: how do we frame things as we make decisions as a group?" Thiel said. "I feel that we need to find ways to make the processes inclusive while also allowing us to move forward in the end."
Thiel said combining studies in public policy and the economics of the developing world should teach him a lot about how citizens can thoughtfully take part in the decision-making process, a question he said fascinated him about EWB's work in Kenya.
In the end, Thiel said he hopes he can help others open new doors much the way MSU has opened doors for him. One of the great lessons he took from Kenya is that the benefits and educational opportunities should be treated as a two-way street, Thiel said.
"I honestly think I learned a lot more from the Kenyans than they learned from me," Thiel said.
For Ilse-Mari Lee, director of the MSU Honors Program, that is the kind of attitude she expects from Thiel, who she said possesses an "intuitive and innate intelligence."
Lee added that winning a Rhodes Scholarship is a tribute to Thiel's multifaceted interests as a student.
"He's equally at home talking about Shakespeare or engineering problems," Lee said. "The breadth and depth of his intellectual interests are truly astounding."
Lee added that the fact that he is the third recipient in six years is a testament to MSU's faculty, as well as to its students.
"It says that MSU is competitive at the highest levels of scholarship in the country," Lee said. "Our undergraduates have access to an extraordinary faculty, as well as to extracurricular activities such as Engineers Without Borders that provide them with life-changing opportunities beyond the classroom."
Thiel echoed Lee's thoughts.
"The opportunities I've had at MSU are directly related to the world-class people that work here," Thiel said. "From the countless mentors I've had among my professors, to the amazing peer culture among the students, I've really benefited from an incredibly intelligent group of friends."
The second 2013 Rhodes Scholar selected for District 14 is also living in Bozeman -- Amanda Frickle, a Billings native, who graduated in May from the College of Idaho. Frickle is currently working as a residence hall program assistant at MSU's Langford Hall.
At Oxford, Frickle said she planned to pursue a master's degree in women's studies, although she is considering adding a second degree in public policy to her docket.
"I think gender theory is an important aspect of how we think about our culture, and I am very interested in how gender informs our public policy," Frickle said.
According to the Rhodes Scholar Organization, Thiel's selection marks the 10th time a Rhodes Scholar has been a product of MSU.
Katy Hansen of Bozeman earned a Rhodes Scholarship in 2011, while Brian Johnsrud, an English graduate from Big Sandy, won the Rhodes in 2006. Previous MSU recipients included Chelsea Elander of Missoula, who won a Rhodes in 2000, Jennifer DeVoe of Helena in 1995 and Maurice Burke, now a professor of mathematics at MSU, who won in 1974.
According to the Rhodes Scholarships website, the scholarships are the oldest international fellowship awards in the world. In addition to obvious and outstanding scholarly achievements, Rhodes Scholars are chosen for their "character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead."
Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, firstname.lastname@example.org.