The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most well known international fellowship awards in the world. Thousands of students across the United States apply to be one of the 32 American scholars selected for the prestigious award. Rhodes Scholars are selected not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and for the common good, and for their potential for leadership in their future career area. The Rhodes Trust, the charity named in honor of Cecil J. Rhodes, provides full financial support for scholars to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, including living expenses and travel expenses to and from Oxford University.
Colton Botta, a 2020 graduate and class valedictorian who majored in computer science while minoring in business entrepreneurship, sat down to discuss his experience as a Rhodes Scholar applicant and finalist. While at NC State University, the Seven Fields, Pa., native completed the University Honors Program. He was also heavily involved with Undergraduate Research under the guidance of Christopher Parnin, an assistant professor of computer science, where they conducted empirical studies to find out how and why programmers struggle with acquiring new languages. The results are set to be published in the International Conference on Software Engineering in Seoul, South Korea, in May. He is credited as the second author of the paper, entitled “Here We Go Again: Why Is It Difficult for Developers to Learn Another Programming Language?” Botta also had the opportunity to complete summer internships at Covestro, Venubi, and IBM as well as serve as a teaching assistant and computer science student ambassador for two years. Botta is just the fourth Wolfpack student to receive the honor of being named a Rhodes finalist and the first for the university in over a decade.
“I was extremely humbled; it just felt surreal,” noted Botta referring to his historic achievement.
Ultimately, Botta was not awarded the scholarship, but he feels the experience was a positive one from which he was able to learn a lot. “I am all set for my graduate school applications,” he joked, explaining the application for the scholarship required him to submit a curriculum vitae, thoughtful personal statement, and several letters of recommendation including an endorsement from Chancellor Randy Woodson. For Botta, the hardest aspect of the application was managing his time. He began the application process in April 2019 and worked to perfect it by the October deadline.
“I had to give myself a deadline to have it done. I knew I could work on revising it forever, but the application deadline was Oct. 1, so I gave myself a deadline to have everything done by Sept. 1,” explained Botta when asked about his approach to the application process. Applicants are prohibited from receiving outside feedback on their personal statement, which Botta noted enabled him to do some important introspection. “It really helped me to realize my passion for teaching and computer science and how I want to work to combine them in the future.”
While Botta was not able to receive feedback on his application, he still sought support from faculty and staff. Namely, he notes George Ligler, a professor in the College of Engineering who won the award himself in 1971, helped him to understand that the selection committee would not be looking for a cookie-cutter applicant. “One of the most helpful pieces of advice Dr. Ligler gave to me was him saying ‘the person that you are is what makes you a Rhodes Scholar.’” Ligler encouraged Botta to showcase his uniqueness and personality throughout his application. Botta also notes Courtney Hughes, director of the University Fellowship Office, was extremely helpful and encouraging throughout the process.
Outside of the classroom, Botta has many passions, including competitive Rubik’s cube solving. “I started in middle school. I was at a friend’s house one day and I saw he had a Rubik’s cube and I thought to myself, ‘I would like to be able to solve that.’” With years of practice and several competitions under his belt, Botta modestly explains, “I like solving puzzles and figuring out how things fit together.” He currently averages about 14 seconds to solve the cube, and his personal record is around 10 seconds. Botta also has a passion for in-line hockey and golf. Back home in Seven Fields, Botta and several friends founded and organized an in-line hockey league to share their excitement for the sport with others.
After graduation, Botta began working with a local software start-up, Pendo, in downtown Raleigh as a backend software engineer. He noted he was particularly excited for the opportunity to be a part of one of the fastest-growing startups in the country, who recently achieved a billion-dollar valuation. In addition to landing an amazing job right out of school, Botta will be getting married in June to his high school sweetheart, Carinne Geil. “Without her,” Botta notes, “I would have never even had the courage to apply. She helped me uncover my passions for education and service, and guided me through how to best act on them.” While Botta has an exciting year to look forward to, he has not written off graduate school or even reapplying for the Rhodes, noting, “you’re able to reapply the following year.” He explained that he has applied to Oxford and several other graduate programs which he would be happy to attend.
Botta has big dreams: his ultimate goal is to create a new teaching paradigm, which he calls individualized cognitive constructivism. His teaching practice would seek to weave personalized elements into every classroom setting. Botta explained, “this might manifest itself through diagnostic exams that offer students personalized practice throughout the year, or a grading system that autonomously identifies students that are making foundational mistakes so that the teacher can intervene.” The autonomy behind this technology is where Botta sees an opportunity to leverage artificial intelligence to enhance educational experiences.
For Wolfpack students considering applying for the Rhodes Scholarship in the future, Botta hopes he can be a resource. He notes how beneficial it was for him to speak with past winners and students currently attending Oxford with the scholarship, and encourages future applicants to do the same. Botta also encourages students to take advantage of campus resources like the University Fellowships Office. “Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can arrange a time to talk with them and they can help identify awards and fellowships big and small that may fit your interests.” For students interested in learning more about fellowship opportunities, check out the UFO website or contact Courtney Hughes.