Release Date: 
Monday, December 4, 2023

HawkPride: HFC alumnus named Rhodes Scholar for 2024, one of just 32 students nationwide

Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos headshot, wearing horned glasses and a grey suit, smiling.

HFC is proud to announce that alumnus Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos has won the internationally prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and will attend the University of Oxford in England for the 2024-25 academic year.

Castellanos has the distinction of being the first-ever Rhodes Scholar to have attended HFC before transferring. He earned his bachelor’s degree last December from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“I can say that I was utterly surprised when I learned that I won this scholarship. I’m still shocked and humbled,” said Castellanos, of Ecorse. “After my final interview with the Rhodes Scholarship Committee in Detroit, District 11 Secretary Dr. Trina R. Shanks came out and read the winners’ names. When she said my name, I froze for a good 15 seconds. People started hugging me and shaking my hand and celebrating. That’s when it hit me. I was speechless.”

A brief history of the Rhodes Scholarship

Established in 1902 through the will of Cecil John Rhodes – a British businessman and politician – the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international graduate scholarship in the world and is considered one of the most prestigious. Rhodes wanted to promote unity and instill a sense of civic-minded leadership in future leaders.

Rhodes Scholars are chosen in a two-stage process. Applicants must be endorsed by their college or university. This year, more than 2,500 students began the application process, and 862 were ultimately endorsed by 249 different colleges and universities. Committees of Selection in each of 16 districts in the United States then invited the strongest applicants to appear before them for interviews.

In the end, just 32 Rhodes Scholars – including Castellanos – were chosen from across the U.S. They will join an international group of scholars from around the world.

“A Rhodes Scholar should have great ambition for social impact and an uncommon ability to work with others to achieve one’s goals. They should be committed to make a strong difference for good in the world, be concerned for the welfare of others, and be acutely conscious of inequities,” said American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust Dr. Ramona L. Doyle.

The Rhodes Trust pays for all college and university fees. It also provides a stipend to cover expenses while in residence at Oxford and transportation to and from England. The total value of the Rhodes Scholarship averages about $75,000 per year and up to as much as $250,000 for Rhodes Scholars who remain at Oxford for four years.

Two notable Rhodes Scholars include former President Bill Clinton and Good Morning America co-anchor George Stephanopoulos. Castellanos is humbled to be in such company.

“I don’t think anyone could be prepared to experience something like this,” said Castellanos. “I can tell you that I feel incredibly humbled and privileged for this opportunity. I also feel a great sense of responsibility. This was only possible because of the many people who have supported me throughout the years.”

Parents' legacy to Castellanos and his siblings is providing them an education

A native of Mexico, Castellanos is the middle of five children. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 to be closer to extended family.

“My dad completed elementary school and my mom completed the third grade. Both of them have a great work ethic and wanted their kids to get an education. My parents said that they wanted education to be their legacy. They often said that they weren’t going to leave us any wealth, but they wanted to ensure that they gave us an education,” said Castellanos.

Castellanos attended high school in Mexico and then completed his senior year at River Rouge High School. He enrolled at HFC after graduation. His twin sister, Luz, also attended HFC and is planning to apply to HFC’s renowned Nursing program. Castellanos and his siblings are first-generation college students.

“When I first moved to Michigan, I wanted to go to U-M, but I didn’t do well on the SAT. I applied to U-M and was not admitted. Then I learned about the Transfer Bridges to the Humanities program at HFC, which was launched that same year (2018). Learning there was a pathway to transfer to U-M by first attending HFC convinced me to enroll at HFC,” recalled Castellanos.

The first person Castellanos met at HFC was the late Dr. Michael Daher, the director of the Henry Ford II Honors Program. Daher became his mentor.

“I was not completely proficient in English at the time. I remember going to his office and apologizing for my broken English. He just smiled. He was very encouraging and kind. When he interviewed me for the Honors Program, I remember his last question was, ‘What’s your favorite book?’ I told him Steppenwolf by German writer Hermann Hesse,” recalled Castellanos. “He was thrilled. Then he told me with a big smile that I was accepted into the Honors Program! I remember going out to the parking lot and looking up at the American flag. I was so grateful that he took a chance on me. When I told him two years later that I got into U-M, he was more excited than I was! He would have been so proud to hear about the Rhodes Scholarship. I’m so grateful for everything he did for me and, in a sense, this award is part of his legacy too.”

Castellanos – who is fluent in English and Spanish and conversational in Portuguese and French – studied liberal arts at HFC and completed the Michigan Transfer Agreement. He transferred to U-M and earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations with minors in critical translation studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies. At Oxford, Castellanos will pursue two master’s degrees: The first in refugee studies and the second in Latin American studies.

During his time at U-M, Castellanos was president of the Global Scholars Program. He was a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and Youth Forum. He was also selected for the 2021-22 Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship.

Castellanos became the student and thinker he is today by attending HFC

HFC prepared Castellanos not only for U-M, but also for Oxford. He does not believe he would be the student and thinker he is today if he had not attended HFC first.

“Unquestionably,” he said. “The writing classes at HFC, in particular, prepared me to tell my own story and to claim that story with pride. As a transfer student, I often try to remind other transfer students that their unconventional journey shows determination in pursuing their education. I was fortunate to have professors who taught me that my story, albeit unusual, was worth telling. I would encourage all of them to hold on to the unconventional or nontraditional parts of their journeys.”

At HFC, English instructors Angela Hathikhanavala and Pedro San Antonio and political science instructor Dr. Anthony Perry were very influential on Castellanos.

“They nurtured my curiosity. They held a space for me and encouraged me to use my voice. They believed in me when I didn’t. Pedro was incredibly welcoming to multi-lingual students. He taught the first English writing class I took in college. It was a life-changing course because he exposed us to marginalized voices as we reflected together on complex social problems. For example, we read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, which sparked something in me. Years later, I try to read it once every summer,” he said. “Likewise, Angela had us read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. For that class, we had to write about our migration experience. I’ve drawn so much inspiration from the essay I wrote called ‘El Norte,’ which describes my grandparents’ experiences as bracero workers. Writing their story was so influential, I even mentioned it on the Rhodes application. The research I conducted at U-M inspired this form of migrant storytelling.”

Hathikhanavala also taught Castellanos in a Directed Study honors course that focused on community service. He spent the semester volunteering at Freedom House Detroit, a non-profit organization that assists refugees seeking asylum. After the course was over, Castellanos continued on at Freedom House to provide translation services.

“The Honors Program at HFC was as challenging as a lot of the courses I took at U-M,” said Castellanos. “The Honors Program let me conduct independent studies and research. I’m particularly grateful to Dr. Perry for his mentorship. He enthusiastically advised my independent study project that explored the historical roots of forced migration in Central America. That’s the field of study I’ll be pursuing at Oxford.”

“There’s a lot to say about Emmanuel, and all of it in superlative terms,” said San Antonio. “What struck me at first was his intellectual curiosity. He is seldom satisfied with easy answers. He explores and measures ideas. One of his best academic assets is his ability to ask difficult questions. But along with his curiosity, there is a generosity of spirit, which is a rare combination. Perhaps my biggest admiration comes from the knowledge that he has yet to reach his full potential.”

Former English instructor confident Castellanos will make the world a better place

At U-M, Castellanos did not plan to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. That was taken out of his hands when U-M Director of the Global Scholars Program, Dr. Benjamin Peters, nominated Castellanos for U-M’s MLK Spirit Award, which is awarded to people in the U-M community exemplifying the leadership and vision of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. U-M’s Office of National Scholarships typically invites recipients of the MLK Spirit Award to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“During his time in the U-M Global Scholars Program, Emmanuel stood out for his keen intellect, inclusive leadership style, and commitment to global citizenship,” said Peters. “We were proud of him when he was a 2023 recipient of the MLK Spirit Award and even prouder when he was named a Rhodes Scholar. Knowing Emmanuel, I expect he will complete his graduate studies at Oxford with distinction and make significant contributions in the field and practice of international human rights.”

Castellanos hopes to strengthen the inter-American asylum regime. Even though countries in the Western Hemisphere share a history of welcoming refugees, he believes current regional cooperation and migration management mechanisms need to be more efficient and humane. His career goal is to work for a non-governmental organization that aids refugees and to work for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“I would like to provide humanitarian assistance for people who have been displaced,” he said.

Hathikhanavala has kept in touch with Castellanos after he transferred from HFC to U-M and is proud of her former student.

“It’s hard to sum up Emmanuel in a quote,” said Hathikhanavala. “But when I got to know him, I do recall saying – possibly right to his face – that he would be running the world one day. As a Rhodes Scholar, it appears he's on his way! His thoughtfulness and kind but thoroughly well-informed understanding of the obstacles faced by asylum seekers and other refugees means his contributions to the world will only make it a better place.”

RELATED CONTENT: Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos is the 2023 undergraduate speaker at the University of Michigan International Institute

Introduced at 19:54, Castellanos speaks from 20:50 to 26:10.