TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — There are many talented, high-achieving students at Florida State University. And then there is Karlanna Lewis.
At 19, the Tallahassee native had already earned her bachelor’s degree, graduating this past spring with a double major in creative writing and Russian — and a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Now, having just turned 20, she can add “Rhodes Scholarship Finalist” to her awe-inspiring résumé.
Lewis navigated the grueling, months-long Rhodes application and interview process to advance to the final round of competition for the distinguished prize, awarded annually to 32 U.S. college students from across the nation.
Though ultimately Lewis was not among the Rhodes Scholars for 2012 announced on Saturday, Nov. 19, Florida State President Eric. J. Barron said he counts himself among her biggest fans, calling the ballet dancer, poet and all-around scholar a “deeply impressive individual.”
“After meeting Karlanna, it was immediately apparent to me that she is an extraordinarily bright and talented person who will be successful in whatever endeavor she sets her sights on,” Barron said. “I know I speak for the entire Florida State University community when I say, ‘Congratulations, Karlanna, on a job well done.’”
Lewis said the overall process of applying for the Rhodes has been a rewarding experience.
“It’s such a great honor just to be considered for a Rhodes Scholarship,” Lewis said. “The whole process of applying and then interviewing for the Rhodes is an amazing experience that very few people get to witness. I feel fortunate and honored to have had somany caring faculty and staff members at Florida State who supported me throughout the process.”
Lewis’ path to academic and artistic excellence wasn’t a conventional one. In high school, she attended the International Baccalaureate program at Tallahassee’s Rickards High School for two years before moving, with her parents’ permission, to Pittsburgh, where she attended the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School for just under a year and pursued her dream of eventually becoming a professional ballet dancer. All the while, she continued to take Advanced Placement courses online through the FloridaVirtual School, and soon earned her GED — again with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
After taking the SAT (she earned a perfect score of 2400, of course), Lewis was accepted into FloridaState. Because of her Advanced Placement courses in high school, she came to FSU with a significant number of college equivalency credits, thus putting her on a fast track to graduation. That, combined with the 18 or so credit-hours of coursework she took every semester, enabled her to complete her undergraduate studies in a brisk two years. Even working at various part-time jobs, keeping up with ballet lessons and participating in just about every extracurricular activity that caught her eye at FSU weren’t enough to slow her progress.
“I’m a naturally curious person, and I like learning about a wide variety of subjects and being exposed to different ideas,” Lewis said. “So it really didn’t feel like that much of a struggle to keep up with my courses while doing all of the other activities.”
A short list of those activities would include writing for the FSView & Florida Flambeau, the university’s student newspaper; working as a disc jockey and in other capacities at WVFS-FM (V89), the campus radio station; publishing a book of dance-inspired poetry, “Naked Ballerinas in Flight,” for her honors thesis; earning a Global Pathways Certificate, which prepares students to succeed in an increasingly multicultural world and global economy; earning a TEFL Certificate, which will enable her to teach English as a foreign language in other countries; taking part in numerous service projects, including classes designed to introduce children to the joys of dance; and studying abroad during her summers, once in Russia and again in Spain.
Another activity that Lewis is particularly excited about combines her two greatest passions, the arts and the environment.
“This year I started a nonprofit organization, Dancearth, that seeks to utilize the arts for social change,” she said. “Specifically, it is intended to raise awareness and support for environmental justice and conservation through dance. We celebrate the environment through movement. Although Dancearth is just getting started, I hope to see it spread globally in the future.”
In applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, Lewis received assistance and guidance from Florida State’s Office of National Fellowships (ONF), which works to match up talented undergraduates with some of the world’s most prestigious scholarships and fellowships. Lewis recalls writing draft afterdraft of her Rhodes application at the urging of ONF director D. Craig Filar, who felt that she needed to narrow her focus to just one or two of her strengths rather than overpowering them with the breadth of her accomplishments.
“Her stellar work as a student in creative writing and Russian and her dedication to dance as a transformative social medium embody the best aspects of the liberal arts tradition at Florida State University,” Filar said.
Dean of Undergraduate Studies Karen Laughlin agreed with Filar’s assessment.
“Karlanna’s unique blend of skills and interests in the arts, languages and the environment represent the very best of the liberal arts tradition at Florida State,” Laughlin said. “Her selection as a Rhodes finalist is a fine example of the many ways our students are competitive with the very best in the nation.”
With the Rhodes interview process completed, Lewis said she is now focusing on other goals. She is currently taking 18 credit-hours in courses at FSU as a non-degree-seeking graduate student. In the spring, she will travel to London for an international internship, followed by a writing residency in France and another internship in Russia.
If the opportunity presents itself, Lewis said she would still jump at the opportunity to dance for a professional ballet company. But even if that doesn’t happen, she has other options. She recently auditioned for Florida State’s Master of Fine Arts program in dance and is considering pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing.
“Dance is something I will always do, because I enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve been a dancer since I was 10 and first saw ‘The Nutcracker’ performed at (FSU’s) Ruby Diamond Auditorium. I said to myself, ‘I want to be up there!’”
(Coincidentally, Lewis will be “up there” soon, performing as the Snow Queen in a production of “The Nutcracker” staged by Tallahassee’s Pas de Vie Ballet company.)
Eventually, Lewis said she would like to become a university professor, citing the helpfulness and collegiality shown by many of those who had taught her as an inspiration. Two, in particular, stood out in her mind: Associate Professor Lisa Ryoko Wakamiya of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, who guided Lewis as shewrote a 45-page honors research project on Russian dance and then helped arrange to have Lewis present it at three academic conferences; and BarbaraHamby, a writer-in-residence in the Department of English, who helped Lewiswith her honors thesis on poetry.
“Both of these women, and so many other faculty members at FSU, have contributed to my success,” Lewis said. “I’ve gotten to know so many professors who do a lot of creative work, both in the arts and the sciences, and they’re always very friendly and happy to share their knowledge with you. My experience has been that I’ve been treated as a colleague more than a student.”
Four Florida State students have been named Rhodes Scholars. They are former student-athlete Myron Rolle (2009), former Student Body President Joe O’Shea (2008), former student-athlete Garrett Johnson (2006) and former student turned novelist Caroline Alexander (1976).
Created in 1902 through a bequest in the will of Cecil Rhodes, a British philanthropist and colonial pioneer, the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international study award available to American students and is widely considered the most prestigious of its kind. Rhodes Scholars are eligible to continue their studies for up to three years, all expenses paid, at Oxford University in England, which is considered one of the world’s top institutions of higher learning.
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