Montana State University

MSU's Hansen plans to use Rhodes Scholarship to study water policy in the world's neediest areas

November 22, 2010 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Katy Hansen of Bozeman, a graduate student in engineering at MSU, was one of 32 American students who won a prestigious 2011 Rhodes Scholarship. Hansen will use the scholarship to study water policy and management at Oxford University. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Katy Hansen, whose long-held desire to serve gained focus when she became involved with the efforts of Montana State University's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, will have the opportunity to impact water policy on a grander scale as a result of her selection as a recipient of a 2011 Rhodes Scholarship, arguably the most prestigious scholarship in the world.

Hansen learned of her award Saturday at regional finalist interviews in Seattle. She is one of just 32 U.S. recipients of the Rhodes, given by the Rhodes Trust for advanced study at Oxford University, one of the world's most distinguished universities.

Hansen graduated from MSU in May with a bachelor's degree in industrial and management engineering and a minor in economics. She is currently an MSU graduate student on a Boren Fellowship working on water resource management in the Negev Desert near the Red Sea.

"When they called my name it was a huge shock," said Hansen, who was one two Rhodes recipients selected from 16 finalists in the region that includes Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Hansen said that with her selection comes responsibility as well as gratefulness for the team from MSU who supported her nomination and mentored her during her years as a student.

"I had eight nomination letters from the most amazing people at MSU who went out of their way to support me," she said.

The fact that she attended MSU, which was literally in her neighborhood, is somewhat ironic for a girl who has been traveling the world for most of her life. She moved to Bozeman in second grade. When she was in high school her father, Joe, was an engineer in Iraq. Later both Joe and mother, Pat, were stationed in Mumbai, India, with the U.S. State Department. Currently, her father is stationed in Afghanistan and her mother in Washington, D.C. While in Bozeman, Hansen stays with her maternal grandmother, Carmen Murphy.

Hansen said she had excellent academic preparation in Bozeman. She was one of 10 valedictorians her senior year at Bozeman High School. She weighed other schools, but ultimately accepted a Presidential Scholarship at MSU.

"I came (to MSU) rather ambitious," Hansen said. "I knew that MSU rewards people who seek opportunities."

While at MSU, Hansen was vice president of ASMSU and active with the Leadership Institute. She found mentors in all corners of the university.

"Mike Miles (the retired director of the University Honors Program) emphasized becoming a well-rounded scholar," Hansen said. Among the courses that inspired her was a politics of food course taught by Linda Young, a professor in political science; a course on war taught by Gordon Brittan, a professor of philosophy; and a course on the origins of the universe team-taught by Miles, paleontologist Jack Horner and astrophysicist Neil Cornish.

But it was her involvement in MSU's active chapter of Engineers Without Borders that truly set her on the path that led to the Rhodes Scholarship. Hansen traveled to Kenya to help build groundwater wells in the Khwisero District and later became president of the MSU EWB chapter. She said learning to build consensus in that organization was her most transformative moment as an undergraduate.

"I was transitioned and mentored into a leadership role by the students that came before me, and in turn I mentored a younger generation of leaders that came after me," Hansen said of EWB. "That's how you grow a sustainable and successful organization."

Last spring Hansen became the first MSU student to win a Boren Fellowship for graduate study. Hansen will return after the Thanksgiving holiday to the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Kefura in the Negev Desert where she is working on water conservation projects between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While an undergraduate, she also traveled to Mali to work on a program directed by Florence Dunkel, MSU professor of plant sciences and plant pathology.

"I've had incredible opportunities at MSU," Hansen said. "I am positive that nowhere else would I have had the breadth and depth of opportunities that I've had here."

Hansen credits the mentoring of Ilse-Mari Lee, the director of the MSU University Honors Program, with the success of her application and interview.

"She would call me in Israel and tactfully and patiently mentor me," Hansen said. She said that such support is important in being one of a field of finalists "who are some of the most incredible people you can imagine."

For her part, Lee said that to paraphrase Cecil John Rhodes, the performance of public duty is indeed Hansen's highest aim.

"Katy is a truly remarkable young woman: she is courageous and compassionate, and has already impacted the world in significant ways," Lee said. "It has been a privilege to know her, and I look forward to following her through this wonderful new chapter in her life. It is deeply meaningful to me to think of Katy going forth in this world, representing Bozeman, MSU and the people of Montana."

Hansen said that her Rhodes interviewers asked whether she will return to Montana to work to resolve water issues that impact the West.

"I consider Montana home, but I plan to work elsewhere and always return here," said Hansen, who initially plans to earn a master's of science degree in water policy and management from Oxford. "There are water problems here. But there is no one in Montana who has to walk eight hours to get dirty water, the only water available to them. There is no one in Montana who doesn't have any access to water. And those conditions do exist in the world. It's important to work to impact the areas where the conditions are most dire."

According to Rhodes Scholar Organization, Hansen is the ninth winner of a Rhodes Scholarship from MSU. 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. Other recent MSU recipients include Jennifer DeVoe of Helena, a recipient in 1995 while she was a student at Harvard Medical School, and Maurice Burke, now a professor of mathematics at MSU.

Ilse Mari-Lee (406) 994-4689, ilselee@montana.edu