Another senior repeats as honorable mention
While serving as a volunteer church representative in Guatemala, Ryan Keller further developed an already growing passion for international issues that has driven the Brigham Young University senior onto USA Today's 2004 All-USA Academic First Team.
"Things I saw on my mission challenged my preconceived notions of what success means – it's not necessarily succeeding in the corporate world or earning lots of money," says Keller, who served in the Guatemala City North Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I have always wanted to do my best and work really hard – that's just Ryan. Now I want to do my best so I'm better equipped to help people."
Keller, of Holladay, Utah, joins 19 other undergraduates from schools like Harvard, Stanford and Duke on the prestigious list, winnowed by USA Today's judges from more than 600 nominees.
"The honorees tend to be outstanding students and broadly educated," says Tracey Wong Briggs, the USA Today program's coordinator. "The judges look to see how well students are extending their education."
Keller, 23, set the tone his first semester at BYU, when he took 24 credit hours and earned straight A's. He also dove into a series of causes, service projects and activities that continues today. A partial list:
Speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic and K'ekchi (a Mayan language spoken in the Guatemalan highlands) after taking more than 40 credit hours of languages and living in three of BYU's language houses, where residents speak only the designated language.
Founded and led Students Against Violence, a coalition of students from BYU, the University of Utah, Utah State University and Westminster College that opposed the state legislature bill to allow concealed weapons on university campuses.
Spent two months last summer in the African nation of Senegal, working for the government and with non-governmental organizations to make recommendations to improve the cultural and political rift in that country. The trip was funded by a Phi Kappa Phi internship grant, only 20 of which are awarded annually.
Founded Project Sahb ("friend" in Arabic), which gathers donated school supplies for Iraqi children. Keller anticipates shipping more than 12,000 items to Iraq next month.
Spent August in Greece at an institute with other students from the Middle East and the Balkans, studying international issues and holding formal discussions with the other delegates to address world problems. Amid all that and maintaining a 3.96 GPA in his philosophy major (with several political science classes thrown in before he declared), Keller stays balanced by spending Wednesday afternoons on the ski slopes and Saturdays, weather permitting, rowing with a crew club he co-founded on the Great Salt Lake.
"It's pretty much hard work," Keller says when asked to explain his high achievement. "Maybe the secret is a mentality – if you believe in a cause and really want to go after it, you'll work hard and be successful. That's true for everyone."
Keller's cause is improving relationships between countries, and he says he wants to put himself in a position to "effect change in international relations." He is in the final stages of competition for a scholarship that he would use to study international relations at Cambridge. Whether or not he wins the scholarship and studies in England, he'll eventually attend law school. After a few years practicing international law, he plans to launch his career in government service, perhaps with the State Department.
"Ryan is an enthusiastic student of politics, philosophy and public service and relishes learning in all ways," says Darren Hawkins, a professor of political science whom Keller assisted on research into Castro's Cuba. "I would not be surprised to see him as secretary of state some day."
Although she says she saw his special qualities when he was very young, Keller's mother Jerri Camden was surprised after she asked her then 12-year-old son what one thing he wanted to see on a trip to the East Coast with friends and their children.
"Other kids chose a famous pizza parlor or shopping centers, but Ryan wanted to see the headstone of Crispus Attucks," Camden says, referring to the black man who was the first casualty of the American Revolution, dying in what was later called the Boston Massacre. "He has always been interested in so many things. I think he has found his potential."
Keller graduated from Cottonwood High School and attended Georgetown University for a year before leaving for his mission in 1999. At BYU he has authored three articles in academic journals and won a $30,000 Truman Scholarship, one of 76 awarded to college juniors committed to public service.
"I pursue my passion," Keller says. "I want to see where I can make the biggest impact, and when I find it, I pursue it."