Oscar De los Santos sits next to President Barack Obama at a special awards luncheon near the White House.(Photo/Courtesy of Oscar De Los Santos)


From lunch with Obama to a Rhodes Scholarship: Meet Oscar De Los Santos

First in his family to attend college, the 2015 USC graduate is one of 32 Americans — and the only Latino — selected for the prestigious scholarship

November 22, 2016 Laura Paisley

How many USC Dornsife students can say they’ve had a burger, fries and a milkshake with President Barack Obama?

Oscar De Los Santos can. (And Obama is a chocolate shake guy, if you were wondering.)

Oscar de los Santos
2017 Rhodes Scholar Oscar De Los Santos (Photo/Courtesy of Oscar De Los Santos)

De Los Santos had volunteered as the youngest Florida field organizer during Obama’s 2012 campaign and won a competitive essay contest about effective leadership. Part of his award was lunch with the president in Washington, D.C.

Now, De Los Santos has earned another great honor: He’s been selected from a pool of 882 applicants as one of 32 American recipients of the 2017 Rhodes Scholarship. The honor provides all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England starting in October.

“There is no award with more visibility than the Rhodes,” he said. “I want to use this visibility to champion progressive policy reform and anti-racist consciousness.”

Scholarly recognition

Upon entering USC, De Los Santos was selected as a Norman Topping Scholar. In 2014, in recognition of his academic achievements, leadership record, commitment to public service and likelihood to become a change agent, he was selected from a national pool as one of fewer than 60 Truman Scholars.

De Los Santos graduated from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences magna cum laude in 2015 with a degree in political science and recognized by USC’s Order of the Laurel and Palm — its highest honor, reserved for 20 undergraduates yearly. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and both a Global and a Discovery Scholar. The City Council of Los Angeles honored him as an emerging leader, and he interned with the National Economic Council and the House of Representatives.

The Los Angeles native, who now lives in Laveen, Ariz., is this year’s only Latino Rhodes Scholar. The first member of his family to attend college, he is the son of Mexican farmworkers who originally came to the United States as undocumented immigrants. They have since become citizens.

According to The Rhodes Trust, Rhodes Scholars should be committed to making a strong difference for good in the world, be concerned for the welfare of others and be conscious of inequities. De Los Santos exemplifies those qualities.

“I’m the child of Mexican immigrants, an anti-hunger advocate and a former teacher and political organizer,” he said. “My degree choices are a way for me to respond from a sense of moral urgency to help marginalized people.”

The heart of Rhodes

Erica Lovano McCann, director of academic honors and fellowships at USC, affirmed that De Los Santos embodies the heart of the Rhodes Scholarship.

“Beyond his academic achievements, he is a compassionate leader who focuses his energy on people first. Resilience, resistance, humility and empathy resound in all he does,” she said. “We are so proud of what he has accomplished and we know he has the potential to become one of the most dynamic leaders of his generation.”

Since graduation, De Los Santos has continued to serve underserved communities, first as a 6th-grade English and social studies teacher for high-risk youth and now as a lobbyist and manager of public policy for the Association of Arizona Food banks.

At Oxford, De Los Santos plans to read for a master of public policy and a master of studies in theology with a focus on Christian ethics. Like Obama, he has a special interest in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.

“I feel a deep sense of moral urgency to do all the good I can for all marginalized people,” he said. “My chosen academic program of study at Oxford comes from that sense of moral urgency. I want to be the most effective and morally responsible public policy influencer I can be, and I believe studying public policy and Christian ethics will help me do that.”

In addition to De Los Santos, USC’s Zoë Scandalis ’15 was selected as a 2017 Rhodes Finalist. The USC Trojan tennis star graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political economy and a minor in environmental studies and was named a finalist for the 2015 NCAA Woman of the Year.