Regis' First Rhodes Scholar

Brian Reyes ’17 didn’t go to Yale dreaming of becoming a Rhodes Scholar. He didn’t choose his summer internships or his extracurricular activities based on how they would look on a Rhodes application. It just wasn’t on his radar or in his plans.

At Yale, Reyes threw himself into the subjects he felt passionately about and devoted his time outside of the classroom to supporting organizations whose missions he deeply believed in. Ironically, it was that intense focus on what he genuinely cared about — not what he thought would look good on a resume — that led to Reyes becoming the first Regis alumnus to win a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

“I really did not think I would win until I won it,” Reyes said after being selected in November as one of 32 students in the American Rhodes Scholar Class of 2021. “Up until even after I interviewed, I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

Winning the most renowned scholarship in the academic world may have been unexpected, but it also was well earned. The Rhodes Scholarship is a testament to Reyes’ brilliance, drive, and desire to serve others. It is also the latest highlight on an inspiring journey that began with his immigrant parents’ commitment to his education, continued through his time with the REACH Program and at Regis, and likely will include a future career dedicated to helping underserved communities in the United States.

When Reyes first walked into the UK Fellowships Office during his junior year at Yale, he intended to discuss other, slightly less well-known postgraduate programs. During their conversation, the administrator asked why he wasn’t applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. Reyes told her that he didn’t think he had a realistic chance of winning one. His perception was that a successful Rhodes application usually involved a demonstrated commitment to or mastery of one specific academic subject or societal issue. Reyes’ activities and interests were varied and didn’t fit as neatly into one category.

“I just felt like my accomplishments weren’t flashy enough,” Reyes says. The Yale administrator thought otherwise. “What I think she saw,” Reyes explains, “and what I began to see as I started to write my own personal statement and think about my narrative, was that the common thread running through everything that I had done was a motivation essentially to enhance opportunity and equity.”

As a freshman at Yale, Reyes began volunteering with Connecticut Students for a Dream, a grassroots, statewide organization that focuses on issues facing immigrant communities in the state. He did legislative advocacy work with the group supporting a successful bill that expanded financial aid to undocumented students at Connecticut state colleges. Through the same organization, Reyes worked on a voter registration campaign targeting young people of color in the state. At Prosperity Now, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-poverty organization, Reyes helped research and write policy agendas and authored articles for their blog. He also has been active with La Casa Cultural, Yale’s cultural center for Latino students, and was the co-president of the school’s Dominican Students Association.

The motivation for all of this work stems partially from a specific interaction Reyes had with his father after receiving his letter of admission to Yale. His father, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager and drives a truck for the Coca-Cola Company, told Reyes that despite the country’s flaws his amazing achievement only could have happened in America. While he shared in his father’s excitement, Reyes also in the moment thought about all those from similar backgrounds and with similar stories who would never achieve the same American dream. His advocacy work in college, though varied, all centered around improving the experiences in the United States for people from underserved communities.

“Even though it was somewhat disparate, it was all driven by that vision of trying to care for people who are just generally voiceless in the U.S. and trying to advocate for their welfare in spaces where they otherwise wouldn’t be,” Reyes says.

This vision, along with his stellar academic record, became the central focus of Reyes’ Rhodes application. After participating in the first-ever virtual selection process due to the pandemic, Reyes found out in a Zoom room that he was one of two students from his New York district being offered the sought-after scholarship to study for two years at Oxford.

As the shock of this news wore off, it quickly gave way to gratitude. “The phrase that came to mind immediately after winning it was, ‘It takes a village,’” Reyes says. “Because it truly, truly did for me.”

The most important figures in that village are his parents, immigrants from the Dominican Republic who prioritized his education. Growing up in East Harlem and then the Bronx, Reyes attended St. Ann School in Harlem and, in the summer before sixth grade, joined the REACH Program, where he spent the next three years undergoing intense academic preparation and leadership formation in the hopes of earning a scholarship to a Catholic high school. At REACH, Reyes also found models for how he would like to lead his life in the form of the Regis staff members who run the program.

“The first institution that really showed me adults living their lives fully committed to some vision of the common good was REACH,” Reyes, who went on to work at REACH throughout high school, says. “They focused their lives on helping me and other people like me, and I think that realization that that goodness in people existed, and that you can make some sort of profession out of that, I think that was one of my core motivating factors when as a high school student I decided that social justice, in broad terms, would be the thing that I would devote my life to.”

Reyes excelled academically at Regis. He attributes much of his success in the classroom at Yale to the foundation laid on 84th Street, saying that he was surprised when some of his freshman courses in college felt easier than the classes he had taken in high school. The Regis community also played a pivotal role in helping Reyes win the Rhodes Scholarship. After Reyes found out he was a finalist for the scholarship, Regis Director of Admissions Eric DiMichele connected him with John Calhoun ’05 and Ben Buchanan ’08, both of whom won Marshall Scholarships and had gone through the Rhodes application process. Reyes says that their advice proved invaluable.

During his time at Regis, Reyes also saw imperfections and has worked to help the school improve. At times, Reyes didn’t feel like he fit in at the school, and he watched some of his REACH classmates and other friends struggle academically and socially. Reyes and classmate Tobi Ayeni ’17 undertook a project during their senior year to study how Regis could attract more students of color and first-generation students from low-income families and ensure that these students feel fully supported and comfortable at the school. He has continued this work during college, serving on the Admissions and Recruitment task force of the Race at Regis Initiative and as a leader of Heritage Club Alumni, a group of Black and Latino alumni who meet regularly and have supported the school in its efforts to address and prevent racism at Regis. (A feature story on this group will be published in the next issue of this magazine.)

“Regis has a lot of potential to change lives,” Reyes says. “Because I know it changed mine.”

Reyes will bring his passion for serving others to Oxford, where he plans to pursue a two-year Master of Philosophy degree in comparative social social policy. He hopes that the experience will allow him to return to the United States with a repertoire of policy ideas from around the globe that will allow him to be open-minded and innovative in his future professional work. While he doesn’t know the exact form that future career will take, he is confident it will focus on seeking to help marginalized communities experience and believe in the same American dream his father spoke of four years ago.

“I think my task, as I go through this very elite and very connected world, will be always to keep in mind that original memory of my father and that grounding reason of why I do what I do,” Reyes says. “I’ve been granted this opportunity that will allow me to walk spaces that by the luck of the draw my father will not be able to walk, despite him being a very intelligent and capable man, and I just have to make sure that I honor him, and my mother as well, in how I use that access.”

Posted: 6/26/21