Montana State University

Rhodes Scholarship to help MSU grad to dig into past to explain contemporary world

November 20, 2006 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Brian Johnsrud, an MSU English graduate from Big Sandy, will use his Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University to study medieval literature as it relates to the contemporary conflict in the Middle East. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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Brian Johnsrud has known since he was at Big Sandy High School that he wanted to teach English. He will be able to teach on more of a grand scale than he might ever have imagined as a result of his selection as one of 32 recipients of a 2007 Rhodes Scholarship, considered to be one of the world's most prestigious fellowship.

Johnsrud, a 2006 English graduate of Montana State University, was selected this weekend following a battery of rigorous final-round interviews in Des Moines, Iowa. Judges reviewed nearly 900 Rhodes applicants from 340 colleges and universities around the country. The scholars, considered to be among the brightest minds in the country, will study for two years at the colleges that make up Oxford University in England.

"This would have been beyond my wildest dreams a few years ago," explained Johnsrud, who said he was an average student in high school. He said he worked full time managing the local pizza shop and so dreamed of teaching high school English in a small Montana town that he refused to visit career counselors who might talk of other options.

That changed in his freshmen year of college when Johnsrud mistakenly was allowed to take a tough senior level course in medieval literature from Gwen Morgan.

"We started with Beowulf," Johnsrud said, recalling the difficulty of the material. "It rocked me in the best and worst way."

Johnsrud said he came to MSU "because everyone from Big Sandy comes to MSU. I didn't even apply anywhere else. I think that could be said for a lot of students from small Montana towns."

Johnsrud said Morgan and Kimberly Myers, also an MSU English professor, both took him under their wings, mentoring him and encouraging him to consider research, graduate school and teaching in higher education. He successfully applied to the University of Oslo where he studied Anglo Saxon and Old Norse literature during his sophomore year.

"When I applied to Norway I had Beowulf flowing through my veins," Johnsrud said. When he returned to MSU, he helped Myers teach. She said Johnsrud has a natural grace with students.

"(However) It is more than what he knows; it is his quick creativity and the way he illuminates both the philosophical and emotional dimensions of what he is teaching that are his unique gifts," Myers said.

Johnsrud's interest in all things medieval took a wonderful turn, he said, when he took an MSU religious studies class taught by MSU professor Susan Cohen. As Cohen traced the history of holy wars, beginning with the ancient Israelites in 950 B.C.E., Johnsrud began to understand how that area's history and culture intertwined with Northern European medieval studies.

"And I was struck by the importance of the Crusades to the current world affairs," he recalled. Johnsrud plans to work with Cohen in Israel this summer researching memoirs and narratives of contemporary Muslims, Jews and Christians. Conversations with Johnsrud's father, Steven, who is stationed in Iraq with the Montana National Guard, have also made him understand the current impact of the long-ago wars.

Johnsrud believes analyzing such phenomenon, and teaching others about it, will help him make an impact.

"I think the most effective way to change the world is to change people's perspectives and teaching is a way to do that," he said.

MSU President Geoff Gamble said that Johnsrud's achievement illustrates the potential impact of higher education. Gamble said while MSU is known for the number of students who have received Goldwater Scholarships for achievement in math and science, Johnsrud's Rhodes Scholarship points to the depth and range of the university.

"In recent years our Truman, Mitchell and now Rhodes recipients, were all students from the humanities, in particular the English Department, two of whom also focused on Religious Studies," Gamble said. "That's testimony to a truly balanced and complete university."

Johnsrud also credits the community of Big Sandy with supporting him during his higher education years. He said his parents were married several times and moved frequently so "the whole town basically embraced me. I lived with three families, in particular, sort of foster families, while I was growing up." In fact, one of those foster mothers, Debbie Moes of Big Sandy, was one of the first people he called when he learned of the award.

Johnsrud said Myers and Morgan encouraged him to apply for the Rhodes to enable him to study in England. He prepared for the Rhodes process with Michael Miles of the University Honors Program who coordinates national scholarships for MSU students, as well as Maurice Burke, an MSU math professor who also won the Rhodes in 1974 while an MSU student.

"These things don't happen overnight," Miles said of the award. Miles said that Johnsrud's strengths are an informed intelligence while maintaining a sense of personal balance and humility.

"Brian's academic DNA consists of a history of interactions with a variety of teachers and mentors --certainly not the least of whom are the dedicated faculty he has encountered here at MSU. That said, in the end he received the Rhodes because of who he is, but in particular, who he promises to be."

Johnsrud currently teaches at a private Bozeman school. He also teaches summers at the Breakthrough Collaborative at Norfolk Academy in Virginia. In addition, he tutors and teaches during his weekends.

Johnsrud is MSU's fourth Rhodes Scholar since 1974 and the first since Chelsea Elander of Missoula won the Rhodes in 2000. Other recent MSU recipients include Jennifer DeVoe of Helena, a recipient in 1995 while she was a student at Harvard Medical School, and Burke.

Michael Miles (406) 994-4732, mikemiles@montana.edu