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Connecticut Native, Environmental Activist Is UConn's First Rhodes Scholar

Sean Flynn
UConn Photo
Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru has been named to the 2020 class of Rhodes scholars. As she accepts a scholarship to Oxford University, she hopes to work on ways to get people of color involved in the environmental conversation.

The University of Connecticut has its first Rhodes scholar.

Wanjiku Gatheru, an environmental studies major from Pomfret, is one of 32 people who will study free of charge at England’s Oxford University for at least two years.

Gatheru’s parents are Kenyan immigrants. As a woman of color, she said she hopes her accomplishment will inspire others -- just as U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) inspired her.

“As I grew up, I was always looking up to folks that inspired me. When you have someone like Jahana Hayes, I could perfectly see there in that instance, see that [I] could be potentially a congresswoman one day,” Gatheru said. “It’s something that has driven me, and I hope that this accolade and the work that I will be able to do with this platform will inspire other young women of color to also make similar change.”

While at Oxford, she plans to pursue a Master of Science degree in nature, society and environmental governance. She said she’ll do that to research barriers that people of color face in trying to establish careers in the environmental field.

“As we’re moving towards decarbonizing our economy and ensuring that we’re creating progressive climate policy -- in the age of climate change --  it’s really important that [people of color] are at the decision-making tables and that we’re able to create the solution that’ll inevitably hit us first, since we’re at the front lines of environmental injustice.”

Gatheru said that race is the No. 1 indicator of how close someone is to environmental hazards and pollution. What alarms Gatheru are the studies showing that people of color are least represented in environmental decision-making.

Gatheru was the only Connecticut native picked for the 2020 class of Rhodes scholars. Four Yale University students join her in the class.

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