Rhodes Scholar recipient Donovan Dixon speaks at 2022 NYU commencement.

Rhodes Scholar recipient Donovan Dixon (CAS ‘23) speaks at 2022 NYU commencement. ©Francis: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

What does it feel like to find out you’ve won one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world? Two recent NYU grads—Donovan Dixon (CAS ‘23) and Tatyana Nieves Brown (Abu Dhabi ‘22)—had that rarefied experience this fall, when they became NYU’s eighth and ninth U.S. Rhodes Scholars and the first two to be selected in the same class.

“Honestly, it was a wave of shock that overcame me. I was like, did they really say that? All I could do was really blink. But yeah, that was an incredible moment,” said Donovan Dixon, who graduated in Spring 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in NYU’s Public Policy program, jointly offered by the College of Arts and Science and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Raised in Philadelphia, Donovan was NYU’s 2023 Commencement student speaker and worked as a special assistant at the White House last summer. When he found out he had been named, the first thing he did was call his mom.

“She was screaming, jumping up and down. She was very thrilled that I received it,” he said.

NYU Rhodes Scholar recipients Donovan Dixon (left) and Tatyana Nieves Brown (right).

NYU Rhodes Scholar recipients Donovan Dixon and Tatyana Nieves Brown.

For Tatyana Nieves Brown, a 2022 NYU Abu Dhabi graduate, deliberation day was long but well worth it.

“Me and the other finalists essentially had to wait in a room for like four hours. Then this big group of panelists came out of an elevator in the room and they said my name,” she recalled. “It moved pretty quickly.”

Nieves Brown grew up in Texas and studied social research and public policy with a concentration in Africana Studies during her undergraduate years. She also co-founded AZIZA, a student-led community organization for Black women in Abu Dhabi. As a recipient of a 2022 Truman Scholarship for Public Service, Nieves Brown served last year as a Department of Public Programs intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I called my parents. They were just kind of sitting around waiting for me to call,” Nieves Brown said, “They just screamed and screamed and screamed. I called my best friend after who's also in Rhodes and has been a big support for me for a long time.”

As they processed the announcement, NYU News talked with the two recent alumni about what helped them on their journey to becoming Rhodes Scholars, what they plan to study at Oxford, and what advice they’d give their younger selves if they had college to do over again.

What does becoming a Rhodes Scholar mean to you? 

Dixon: At the heart of it is, how will I use this exceptional opportunity to give back to the community that raised me up? Whether it be the people in Philadelphia, who supported me through my K-12 education, or the people at NYU, who constantly believed in me, who chose me and gave me the support to achieve something like this. How will I use this opportunity to support individuals who don't have this opportunity?

Nieves Brown: I have sort of a larger goal, which is to be part of Puerto Rico’s process of working towards self determination. Over time, Rhodes kind of revealed itself as an opportunity to engage with people who work in a lot of different fields and—with Puerto Rico’s deep colonial history— there's a long line of people who are doing the work to process and facilitate that reckoning. I'm hoping to join that body of people.

How did you get here? What helped you on your way to securing this opportunity? 

Dixon: I came to NYU deep in imposter syndrome and not really knowing what my place at the school would be. But, my time as an AnBryce Scholar and having that community of first generation students from low income backgrounds really helped me to verify that I do have a place on this campus. Also, Bethany Godsoe, the director of the program and senior associate vice president of student affairs, has always been someone to show a genuine compassion for the students that she interacts with.

My last semester at NYU, one of my professors recommended me to the Application Development Cohort. And she had listed that I would be a good contender for their Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. I started to look more into studying abroad, because that's something that I unfortunately couldn't do during my undergraduate time. And that really led me to just throw my hat in the ring.

Nieves Brown: I think moving from place to place within NYU Abu Dhabi allowed me to interact with people my age who are also thinking about justice. Being in a sort of moving, rotating academic program gave me the ability to build really deep relationships with people and realize that my plight is deeply connected and fundamentally connected to the plights of other people.

What do you plan to accomplish during your time at Oxford?

Dixon: I hope to pursue a master’s of philosophy and comparative social policy. I had the fortune to grow up and study in two of the most dynamic policy places in the United States. So to be able to take that experience and bring it to another country is one that I'm looking very forward to and being able to understand, specifically in my field of housing and homelessness, what are the different policy initiatives of cities. That trade of knowledge is something that I very much hope to learn from the global community of Rhodes scholars and Oxford students.

Nieves Brown: I'm looking at a couple of programs. One is a master's—my parents want me to get a PhD, but I don't know if I have it in me—in comparative social policy. I want to look at Puerto Rico’s policies. A lot of our public institutions are facing a very rampant decline. And a lot of that has to do with our political circumstance and not really being able to have agency over how our island is run. So I'm interested in exploring how to revitalize these institutions and how to build a robust, essentially socialist state within Puerto Rico that’s also independent and sovereign. And that's a big, tall task that requires a lot of community and also a lot of international inspiration. 


How do your career aspirations now compare to your dream job when you were a kid?

Dixon: As a child, I grew up quite shy and reserved. So I never envisioned even being Commencement speaker a few months ago—that was something that was totally wild. I think that I aligned with what I wanted to do as a child in the sense that I'm pursuing public service and focused on building a better world.

Nieves Brown: I think I've been interested for a long time in being a person who fights for good. Growing up in South Texas, I've always cared about power dynamics and politics. It was always kind of right in front of me growing up by the border. As I got older, I started accepting that being a head of state or a president or a governor isn't the only way to do good for the community, and that a lot of the people who keep communities running actually don't have a lot of structural or celebritized power.

I'm interested in whatever tools we have to turn the tides and to be able to think about justice as a real practical thing. Not just in our individual quarters, but thinking about justice for Puerto Ricans, Taiwanese, Palestinians, South Africans—and the list goes on. 

What advice would you like to go back and give your NYU first-year self? 

Dixon: I came into NYU with a four year plan, I had everything lined up. I was going to be an economics major. And literally, within the first semester, I was like, I don't want to do this. So I think if I could go back in time, I would say to myself: It's okay that you don't have it figured out. As a first generation college student, there's pressure that you need to get college right and that you can't make any mistakes. But it was only through the process of making mistakes that I found a path that has been much more fulfilling.

Nieves Brown: I think the best education is breaking bread with as many people as possible. And prioritizing the people who are not given the time of day. I loved my classes, most of them. But I think what really struck me as a critical thing to value over the course of my four years at NYU Abu Dhabi is what happened outside the classroom. Our relationships to others are bigger than our passports, are bigger than the people who are sort of familiar to us. There's a lot of commonality we can have with people we're told we're drastically different from culturally. And that's a reason to have solidarity.