Growing up in a town of 234 people in rural Idaho, Tara Westover barely considered attending college, let alone envisioned that one day she would be headed to the University of Cambridge for postgraduate studies with a prestigious scholarship worth more than $37,000.
Westover, 21, and a Brigham Young University senior majoring in history, was recently named one of 45 U.S. college students to receive the highly competitive Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She is the third BYU student to receive the award since 2004.
Four of this year's recipients come from Harvard, two each from Yale and Princeton and one from Stanford.
"The Gates Scholarship is to Cambridge what the Rhodes is to Oxford: it immediately identifies Tara as a self-motivated learner, a disciplined and well-rounded person, and a stand-out student in her major," said Madison Sowell, director of BYU's Honors Program, of which Westover is a part.
The Gates Trust, established by a formative donation to Cambridge in 2000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to support young individuals who excel intellectually, with strong leadership potential and a desire to serve society.
Having seen economic and social challenges in the agricultural region around Clifton, Idaho where she was raised, Westover hopes to pursue research that will identify the political and historical reasons that prevent individuals from becoming successful and economically independent.
"The Gates are very much interested in helping people who want to do work for humanitarian or social improvement," she said. "I think what made me stand out to them was that I could tie my research into my life story."
Westover's formidable academic achievements at BYU include a 3.9 GPA and serving in the following positions:
- An officer in the Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society
- Editor of The Thetean, a student journal for historic writing
- A member of BYU's Model European Union team, which recently competed in Seattle
Belied by her collegiate success, Westover did not always have plans to pursue higher education.
"It didn't seriously occur to me to go to school until my older brother went to BYU," said the youngest of seven children. "None of my other siblings went to college, but my brother came home from school and suggested that I go."
Tyler Westover, now a BYU graduate, is pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Purdue University.
"Tara has worked very hard to achieve her goals, and I think BYU was a great place for that, because of the excellent, helpful faculty and the students she could work with," he said.
When she first arrived at BYU, Westover found her coursework to be extremely challenging. Several of her professors took notice of her unique potential and sought to help her develop through mentorship.
Paul Kerry, an associate professor in BYU's Department of History who is currently the Vaughan Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, spent many hours reviewing Westover's papers with her for his writing-intensive class. He helped her apply and ultimately be accepted to BYU's study abroad program to Cambridge in the summer of 2007.
"The Cambridge experience released Tara's potential," Kerry said. "She would often write much more than was required and would discuss her ideas regularly with classmates and faculty."
A highlight of Westover's BYU experience was the professional relationships she formed with faculty.
"When I think of the professors I respect most at BYU, I think the ones that really stand out to me are the ones that are very careful about assessing the potential of students," Westover said. "When I came to BYU, I would have looked extremely unpromising."
Westover will graduate in April with University Honors. At Cambridge, she will pursue a Masters of Philosophy in political thought and intellectual history, focusing on contradictions and reconciliations of John Stuart Mill's liberal philosophies and political writings.
Eventually she hopes to complete a doctorate and teach at a university, but before that, she wants to work for a non-profit organization or think tank, perhaps focusing on international relations. She and others credit her success to her drive for learning and determination.
"There is a wealth of opportunities at BYU, but you have to look for them and hope one works out," she said. "I've applied for lots of jobs at BYU that I didn't get. I have worked really hard on a lot of assignments that I didn't do well on, but I think if you keep doing it, people will help you. If you keep looking for those opportunities and keep applying yourself, you may just find one that works out."