Dec. 22, 2009
Rhodes Scholar leads Tiger swimmers by example
Written by Jack Smith
Commitment. Discipline. Tenacity. Accountability.
Jordan Anderson credits countless hours in the swimming pool at Auburn for teaching him those traits.
Yet, as he learned in an Auburn chemistry lab, failure can also teach lasting life lessons.
Anderson, an All-American swimmer and Auburn's first Rhodes Scholar in nearly 30 years, learned that the hard way while performing chemical reactions for a professor trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding the human eye and exactly how it works.
"I was performing reactions, and they were not going the way that they were supposed to go," Anderson said, still dripping from a grueling 90-minute workout at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center after a recent practice. "I would end up without the right yield that I needed or I would not get the right purity. It was failure on a day-to-day basis, getting the wrong thing and coming up short."
The details of the work--Anderson was assisting an Auburn chemistry professor working to discover how a rodoption molecule in the human eye works--might be better suited for a scientific journal. Still, the lessons learned in the lab are relevant to anyone.
Anderson--like most of his teammates on the Auburn swimming and diving team--is not accustomed to coming up short. Not in the pool or in the classroom.
"In the end, I was eventually successful in synthesizing the compound," Anderson said, "but the lesson was learning through failure and never giving up."
A native of Roanoke, Va., Anderson never considered that he might become a Rhodes Scholar. A three-time NCAA champion and stellar student studying pre-dentistry--he has a 3.9 GPA--the senior's sights were set on dental school.
That all changed when he went to see Dr. Paul Harris, Director of National Prestigious Scholarships at Auburn, over the summer.
"If you had asked me four months ago what I thought I would be doing after graduation, the Rhodes Scholarship would have had nothing to do with it," Anderson said. "I had not even thought about applying."
He went in to learn more about applying for dental school scholarships. He came out armed with applications some of the most prestigious scholarships offered in America.
"After (Harris) looked over my resume and some things I am involved in, he said, `you might be a good candidate for one of the national scholarships, either the Rhodes or the Fulbright or the Marshall.' That wasn't really in my plans."
Anderson admits he was reluctant to even apply for the Rhodes Scholarship initially, but Harris convinced him that even becoming a finalist would boost his chances of landing other scholarships.
"I went home that weekend and prayed about it a lot and did a little research. A few days later, I decided I wasn't going to lose anything by trying."
A month or so later, Anderson had completed the application and written a compelling personal statement about his success in the pool and his personal faith, which he credits for earning him a coveted spot as a Rhodes Finalist.
"The whole process of me applying and becoming a finalist, it's just been an absolute God thing," Anderson said. "It's not anything I anticipated. I went in just trying to get some help in finding scholarships for dental school."
Instead, he soon found himself prepping for the penetrating questions asked of Rhodes finalists. A host of volunteers, including Auburn deans, professors and local attorneys, organized mock interview sessions to help him prepare for the finalist stage.
When the day came for his interview in Birmingham, the committee asked Anderson if he thought the emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and winning detracts from the passion and purity of his sport. He drew his answer--at least in part--from something the late Coach Richard Quick told him.
"Life is bigger than swimming," Anderson said. "The lessons you learn in swimming are going to carry you through life. Richard told me one time that if the only thing he cared about as a coach is winning, his purpose would be useless."
That nugget of wisdom came from a legendary swimming coach with record 13 NCAA championships to his credit.
"I have thought about what he said a lot, and I think what he meant is that in swimming or in any athletic participation, the goal is always winning. That's what you train for and strive for. But the passion and the joy of the sport should come from knowing that what you are doing is going to carry over into your life later on."
The Rhodes panel also asked Anderson about his faith.
In his answer, he talked about his involvement with Young Life Ministries, which has been an integral part of his college life.
"I have been involved with Young Life Ministry since high school," Anderson said. "Young Life is a Christian outreach ministry that is involved with high school and middle school kids. The goal of Young Life is to form relationships with high school students and to show them the love of Christ through your own love. It's a simple ministry and a simple outreach, but it is kind of the way I came to my own faith, so it is close to my own heart."
Anderson has served as a Young Life leader at Lee-Scott Academy and led Bible studies for middle and high-school aged kids among other activities.
"I just went to lunch there one or two times a week to try and get to know the kids. It's pretty intimidating at first and you think these kids don't care. Then you realize they are just as scared of you as you are of them. Once you find common ground on one thing, all they want to do is talk to you. It's an incredible ministry and a great way to reach kids."
It is Anderson's personal faith and concern for others, perhaps, that fuels his desire to make a difference in the world when his time at Auburn--and the incredible experience that looms at Oxford University after graduation--comes to an end.
"What I would like to do long-term is some sort of medical relief aid in developing countries," Anderson said. "I think it's something that would be very gratifying and is badly needed."
Anderson will pursue a master's degree in global health sciences at Oxford.
"I want to focus on the health conditions that are afflicting developing countries," Anderson said. "I am interested in research at some point but I want to get out in the field first and see what the needs are."
Count Auburn swimming Head Coach Brett Hawke among those who believe Anderson will indeed make his mark on the world.
"He's going to invent something or cure something," Hawke said. "He's going to be one of those guys that changes the world. He has really big dreams for himself out of the pool, and I think Oxford will open up a world of possibilities for him. He will be around some of the smartest people in the world."
The Rhodes Scholarship criteria demand that those competing for the prestigious honor show an ability to lead others. Adam Klein, a teammate who has watched Anderson evolve as a team captain and leader, says the ability to lead others is one of his greatest gifts.
"He's a great leader, great student and great swimmer," said Klein, a finance major from New Orleans. "There is nobody more qualified than him. He is not a `Do as I say, not as I do' leader. He does what he says he is going to do."
"Jordan leads the guys as a team captain every day," Hawke adds. "He is one of those guys that people respect. He's not one of those guys that are in your face, but when he says something, people listen. He leads by example all the time."
Hawke said he learned that Anderson was an especially bright student-athlete long before he became a Rhodes Scholar.
"He's always analyzing things, he always has good ideas. I met him three years ago and immediately I could tell that he's a real intelligent kid," Hawke said. "He is 23 years old but acts like he is 35. When he came back after winning the award, I kind of felt stupid standing next to him."
As for the rest of his senior year, Anderson looks forward to helping his teammates defend their NCAA championship. Then, it is on to Oxford for at least one year, and maybe two years, of study.
"I'm just going to Oxford with an open mind," Anderson said. "I am just really excited about the future and what it might bring."