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From near-dropout to Rhodes Scholar

Feeling too pressured, Stephanie Bryson nearly quit high school. Then she found her passion at Cal State Long Beach, and the sky appears to be the limit.

November 22, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Stephanie Bryson, 23, is one of four Californians among 32 students named as Rhodes Scholars.
Stephanie Bryson, 23, is one of four Californians among 32 students named… (Cal State Long Beach )

As a 10th-grader in San Diego, Stephanie Bryson said, she was disenchanted with school, receiving poor grades and contemplating dropping out to become a professional surfer. But she eventually came to see the value of a higher education and entered Cal State Long Beach. In May she graduated summa cum laude and was class valedictorian.

Her progression from rebellious teenager to serious scholar didn't stop there: Bryson, now a 23-year-old graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was recently named a Rhodes Scholar — making her the second Cal State graduate to receive the honor.

"It was pretty surreal until I woke up this morning with 20 e-mails," Bryson said Monday. "It's a great feeling, and it's kind of starting to sink in that I did it."

Bryson was one of four Californians among the 32 students from the United States named as winners of the prestigious award, which provides for up to three years of study at Oxford University in England. The other California winners were Stephanie Lin of Irvine, a senior at MIT; Brianna Doherty of Carmichael, a senior at Brown University; and Tenzin Seldon of Albany, a Stanford senior.

At Cal State Long Beach, Bryson maintained a 4.0 GPA, earned bachelor's degrees in German and international studies and was awarded many campus honors. She was a "critical and creative thinker" and a "model of student engagement," said Nele Hempel-Lamer, associate professor of German and a mentor to Bryson.

When she steps onto the Oxford campus in October, Bryson will be far from her days at Torrey Pines High School — a high-achieving public school where, she said, she almost buckled under the pressure to succeed and stopped going to many of her classes.

It didn't help that both her parents were at San Diego State University. Her father, Jeff Bryson, is now a professor emeritus of psychology, and her mother, Liane Bryson, is a lecturer in the rhetoric and writing studies department.

"They were pretty distraught at my choices in high school," Bryson said. "But they let me make my own mistakes."

It was while working as a lifeguard, she said, that she learned the value of discipline and realized she could choose her own path in education.

"It's important that she went to a state school … and had to do the work of really shaping her own course; that is what is particularly rewarding," Liane Bryson said Monday.

Stephanie Bryson eventually wants work in foreign service, focusing on transatlantic relations and possibly becoming an advisor to a U.S. president.

Being named a Rhodes Scholar is a personal honor, she said, but also a win for her school and the Cal State system, which along with the University of California has been battered by state funding cuts.

"When I started school at Long Beach until the time I finished, tuition increased 200%," she said. "Something like this can provide a strong reminder to the Legislature and public about the importance of higher education. California's public education system used to be the envy of the world, but we have kind of lost sight of that."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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