Vidal Arroyo has never gotten his driver’s license – he commutes to Chapman using the train. He’s lived in the same Southern California house since kindergarten. And, self-admittedly, he wasn’t “that great” of a student in high school. But Arroyo, a first-generation student and senior biochemistry and molecular biology major, is the first Chapman student to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship.
The highly prestigious award gives out more than 100 fully-funded scholarships each year to students across the globe for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Out of about 2,500 applications that come from the U.S. each year, 32 are chosen. The Rhodes Trust Office of the American Secretary and Association of American Rhodes Scholars told The Panther that one to two applicants apply from Chapman each year.
“It’s something that (some people have) thought about when they were a kid. For me, I didn’t even think of applying for this scholarship until it was actually time to apply for it,” Arroyo said.
“I just feel like, ‘Man, I won this thing? If I can win this, I feel like anyone can win it.’ All I did was decide to work harder in college. The fact that I’m winning it just means that there’s a lot of hope for kids that have to overcome barriers in their education.”
Arroyo, who is excited to live somewhere other than California, plans to pursue two master’s degrees, both related to statistics.
“I want to design artificial intelligence algorithms that can be used to personalize cancer treatment,” Arroyo said. “ For the research I want to do, a lot of it is based on statistics, so I want to develop myself in that field. And it’s really cool, because Oxford actually has a really strong department in bioinformatics and statistical genetics.”
Arroyo’s talents were first noticed by Melissa Rowland-Goldsmith, a molecular biology professor who was Arroyo’s mentor at Chapman. After one of Arroyo’s other professors, who he had begun research with, was diagnosed with cancer, Arroyo watched that professor leave Chapman – piquing an interest in developing adaptive cancer treatments.
“Dr. Rowland-Goldsmith … first encouraged me to apply to cancer research programs after (this incident),” he said. “She saw the hurt I was going through, and she was able to channel that into something positive.”
When Rowland-Goldsmith first met Arroyo during the spring semester of his freshman year, she saw something special.
“He came to my office hours the very first day I had them, the very first week of the semester,” Rowland-Goldsmith said. “Most students would not come and introduce (themselves) and tell me right away how excited they were about taking the course.”
Rowland-Goldsmith said Arroyo was always engaged in class. He was constantly answering and asking questions without hesitation If he didn’t understand something or wanted to understand it at a deeper level, he always came to her office.
“Very rarely do I have a student who gets a 100 percent score on quizzes or exams, but here’s Vidal getting (perfect scores),” she said. “He was just top-notch and I saw something in him, so I said ‘Have you thought about research?’”
Arroyo began cancer research the summer of his sophomore year after an extensive application process. Normally, incoming undergraduate seniors apply for the summer research programs that Arroyo did, so he faced steep competition. Arroyo applied to around 30 programs and was accepted into all of them, Rowland-Goldsmith said, though she had initially told him not to be discouraged if he didn’t receive any acceptances.
“He started contacting the other schools saying ‘Just ignore my applications’ to let other people in, because he already had so many choices of really great places already,” she said.
Arroyo has also won an outstanding oral presentation award at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for minority students in 2017, and has started his own club at Chapman, STEMtors, which encourages students at places like Higher Ground and among Anaheim’s youth to attend college and go into STEM-related fields. He received a scholarship award from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
“Every time I write a letter of recommendation for Vidal, there’s so much more I need to add because he keeps receiving so many more awards,” Rowland-Goldsmith said.
In addition to the Rhodes Scholarship, Arroyo was nominated for the Marshall, Gates-Cambridge, and Mitchell scholarships. He was offered interviews by all three and was eventually awarded the Rhodes Scholarship.
“Once the panel deliberates and decides, they bring all the finalists into the same room. I was prepared to clap for the first person whose name would be called, and then it was me,” Arroyo said. “And I couldn’t clap; I was shocked. I still haven’t processed it at all.”