Funny how some of the most important moments in life go by in the blink of an eye.
That’s how University of Wisconsin-Madison fifth-year senior Drew Birrenkott felt about the process of applying for, and eventually receiving, a Rhodes Scholarship earlier this month.
Last summer, Birrenkott received an endorsement from UW and put his hat in the ring for one of the most prestigious academic scholarships in the world. Upon learning he was a finalist in October, the McFarland, Wis., native traveled to Chicago with 11 other students vying for the chance to interview with a panel that would ultimately decide his fate.
After two hours of deliberation, the committee announced Birrenkott a winner.
“It was a very surreal moment to hear I had gotten the scholarship,” Birrenkott said. “The application process was rigorous. Each step of the way I told myself, ‘this is a big accomplishment, I should be proud.’ I never really thought it would happen. It (all) went by so fast, in an instant.”
Birrenkott, 23, is finishing his triple-major in political science, biochemistry and biomedical engineering at UW and plans to pursue a Master’s of philosophy in developmental studies at Oxford. Following his two years abroad, Birrenkott wants to return to the United States and attend medical school.
Through his work with Engineers Without Borders in Kenya and with UW’s Khorana program in India, Birrenkott has developed a passion for working to improve health systems in developing countries. His seemingly divergent majors have played a big role in helping him see all the ways his skills can go to use in the field.
“I had always planned to study bio-med and political science in college because I was very interested in both,” he said. “When I looked at the options coming in though, it seemed like it would be difficult to successfully do both. But when I started working in Kenya, I saw how well they fit together. A lot of what engineers do is deal with people, so it compliments the work you do with political science. Chemistry came later. Through that program I could research in India and at Oxford in two separate summers. I was really happy I could fit it in.”
What Birrenkott points to most in discussing his academic success though, are the opportunities presented to him through UW and the mentors in each program who shepherded him along the way. Now, he stands on the precipice of a once-in-a-lifetime experience to take his past experiences and turn them into an exceptionally bright future, for himself and others.
“My ultimate goal is to get involved in preventative medicine, looking at healthcare systems and how to make them better in developing places and where they’re lacking,” Birrenkott said. “But where I’m going to end up is hard to say. There’s a big need in countries like Kenya that I’m really interested in addressing. But there’s a need in the United States with some communities that lack health care.”