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The Rhodes scholar

Chi Alpha student leader receives prestigious scholarship

By Kirk Noonan

He flunked out once, was expelled once and considered himself a poor student. Not exactly the makings of a Rhodes scholar — but that’s what Aaron Polhamus, 22, a recent graduate of Stanford University and former Chi Alpha student leader, became.

“As I prayed about pursuing the Rhodes scholarship, I was seized by an extraordinarily deep sense it was something I had to pursue,” Aaron says. “I knew I would not be at peace if I didn’t go for it.”

Only 32 Americans in 2008 received the much-coveted scholarship that includes a full ride to the University of Oxford in England, travel expenses and a living stipend. Though the competition for a Rhodes scholarship can be fierce, Aaron says he was put on the right track for such an accolade years ago.

As a child he was deemed gifted. But with his intelligence came a free spirit that did not conform to traditional classroom rules. Sitting for extended periods of times, quarantining his thoughts until called on by a teacher, and doing seemingly endless pages of mathematical problems — which he says he could master in minutes — felt tedious, unnecessary and, worst of all, boring.

Some of the popular kids at his Bellingham, Wash., middle school shunned him, and his teachers struggled to keep him on task. As a result, Aaron became withdrawn and his grades and behavior suffered.

“For the next three years he led a rebellion at the middle school,” says Mark Polhamus, Aaron’s father.

“For years I thought my problems were my dad’s fault,” admits Aaron, noting he and his father had a strained relationship during his adolescent years. “But when his faith led him to undertake a transformation of his character, that allowed him to be a different kind of father to me. It became hard to blame him when he began doing his best to make good on his past mistakes.”

Mark admits he was legalistic, demanding and had said things that deeply hurt his son. To make amends, he says, he apologized to Aaron and strived to hone his parenting skills. As Mark changed for the better, Aaron followed suit and eventually committed his life to Christ.

But there were some difficult adjustments before Aaron made that decision. After being busted for vandalism in middle school, Aaron was enrolled at Bellingham’s Options High School, which offers an alternative education for gifted and at-risk students. Free from the constraints of a traditional classroom, Aaron finally began to thrive academically and socially.

Another experience that would prove pivotal in his development occurred when Mark, 51, took Aaron on a mountain hike.

“On the way to the summit,” recalls Mark, “we prayed together, revisited some past wounds and wrong beliefs, and asked the Holy Spirit to redeem those events, which He did.”

When they reached the summit they prayed together, shared Communion, and Mark blessed his eldest son and told him how much he loved him.

“It brought us closer together and took a weight off my chest,” says Aaron.

When Aaron graduated high school he had already earned an Associate of Arts degree from the local community college. After two years at Western Washington State University, his father’s alma mater, he transferred to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. There, he joined the local chapter of Chi Alpha, the national Assemblies of God ministry to U.S. colleges and universities.

“Aaron’s gone out of his way to find and mentor younger guys, and has really challenged them to step up their commitment and leadership,” says Glen Davis, Stanford Chi Alpha director. “He’s done such a good job that, while we’ll be sorry to see him go, our ministry will not weaken once he heads to Oxford. He has deep concern for his many nonbelieving friends and is always reaching out to them.”

As a student leader, Aaron taught a men’s Bible study. He says his involvement with Chi Alpha provided him with an excellent forum for growth and an opportunity to constructively work through tough questions about his faith.

“In Chi Alpha I found a community of brothers and sisters I loved deeply and was committed to serving, and I felt loved and accepted in return,” he says. “This is one of the most important things a student — and for that matter any person — can have.”

Last summer Aaron was awarded a grant by Stanford to compare different models of sustainable microfinancing in rural areas in Peru. During the day he traversed the northern region of the country interviewing recipients of small loans and the bankers who made the loans. At night he hunkered down in noisy Internet cafés to work on the Rhodes scholarship application. Though he knew the odds of being awarded a scholarship were great, he figured he had little to lose.

“If nothing else, the Lord would confirm the current course I was on or maybe show me a new direction,” he says.

After being endorsed by Stanford (each applicant must be endorsed by his or her college or university) his application was submitted to a national panel for further review. He was then flown to Seattle to meet the other scholars who had applied and a regional panel of judges who would determine who would receive the scholarship.

“It was nerve-racking,” he says of the interview process. “But I felt like I represented myself well. If I didn’t get the scholarship, there was someone better there than me. I was fine and at peace with that.”

Aaron and another student scholar, Jason Crabtree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, were announced as the District 15 (Washington state) recipients of the scholarships.

“I praised Jesus that He gave that to me,” says Aaron now. “But I was not bound to it. I had freedom concerning the outcome no matter what the panel’s decision would have been.”

At Oxford he will study statistics and finance. His long-range goals are to help aid those who are impoverished and be an advocate of justice.

“But first and foremost,” he quickly adds, “I want to worship God and be more like Him. From there He’ll show me what is on His heart for me to do.”

KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Simple Plan (

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