By Kris Kitto - 02/02/09 04:13 PM EST
When Vincent Hofer found out late last year that he won a 2009 Rhodes scholarship, it took him a moment to contemplate the magnitude of the achievement.
“The second after it got announced that I was a Rhodes scholar, the first thing I kind of did was close my eyes and just say, ‘Lord, what do you have planned for me?’ ” says the 23-year-old legislative correspondent for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). “Because it hits you like that.”
The accomplishment continues to widen the world for Hofer. He grew up in a 100-person town in rural Kansas, later landed in Washington to work for the country’s most exclusive club — the Senate — and soon joins an even more exclusive world of leading scientists, politicians, humanitarians, artists and businesspeople.
“There’s so many amazing people in the school that you just don’t think a little Kansas kid from a town of 100 really stands much of a chance of getting selected,” says Hofer, already looking the part of an academic with a neatly trimmed beard and a dark sport coat. “Oxford is considered one of the epicenters of intellectual thought, and to be able to enter a prestigious university like that is going to be an incredible blessing.”
The scholarship committee selects students with potential for “effective service to the world,” according to its website, and Hofer, a Kansas State University alumnus, plans to pursue a program in economics and possibly Latin American studies.
Hofer, a first-generation college graduate, grew up in Franklin, Kan., in what he describes as a “very devout Catholic” family. His father started a trucking company after graduating from high school and, for the past 13 years, has managed a coalmine, where Hofer spent his teenage summers working. His mother works in her family’s hardware business.
Among the more treacherous aspects of Hofer’s youth were the tornadoes that would tear through the Kansas plains. He remembers one close call in 2003, when he and his family hunkered down in a storm shelter while a cyclone ravaged much of his town.
“We had two shingles that blew off our house,” he says. “We spent the next two weeks helping our neighbors get things back together.”
It’s little wonder that Hofer took a liking to the tropical weather in Honduras. While at Kansas State, a professor connected Hofer to an agricultural university in the Central American country. Hofer, who was in Kansas State’s international agribusiness program, spent the next three months in Honduras conducting agriculture research and helping the Inter-American Development Bank assess small businesses applying for micro-loans. The experience planted the seed for his desire to pursue a career in international development.
In his senior year of college, Hofer took a Ph.D.-level econometrics class “because I had three extra hours and I didn’t really know what else to do with them,” he says.
It wasn’t the star student’s academic undoing, but he did get his first B.
“I got an 89,” he recalls. “I was a little frustrated, because I didn’t know I was that close to an A. But I wasn’t worried about the grade; I was just trying to figure out what econometrics was.”
Hofer says he was one of only a few undergraduates who have taken the class, and the professor was so impressed with Hofer’s performance that he wrote a recommendation letter for Hofer’s Rhodes scholarship application.
Hofer came to Washington by accident. Upon graduation, he had planned to return to Honduras to continue his work with the Inter-American Development Bank, but the contract fell through. His dean, a former Brownback staffer, told Hofer she had received word that the senator was looking for two new staff assistants. Hofer sent in his résumé.
Brownback was headed to Kansas State to give one of the university’s commencement addresses, so the two scheduled a lunch interview.
“We ate at Quiznos,” Hofer recalls.
A few weeks later, he packed his car and headed to Washington.
He continued to rely on his car for the first few months in Brownback’s office. Hofer started as the senator’s driver. During their many drives and detours — Hofer was an accomplice on Brownback’s regular quests to satisfy his sweet tooth, often driving the senator to an ice cream shop for an afternoon fix — he soon told his boss about his Rhodes scholarship aspirations and his greater desire to help developing nations improve their quality of life. The senator offered his support.
“Brownback is a very Christian man. He would throw in his biblical encouragements to me on a very regular basis,” he says. “One thing I always took away from him — that helped me pursue the scholarship — was ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ He would always say that.”
Much of the senator’s office got behind Hofer, too, organizing mock interviews for him and quizzing him on topics the Rhodes selection panel might ask about.
Meanwhile, Hofer began trying to manage the expectations of his family, particularly his mother, who he says was “elated” when she found out the selection committee asked him for an interview.
He recalls saying, “Mom, this is probably as far as it’s going to get, so enjoy this moment.”
Hofer went to Kansas City in November for the interview, and learned during the trip that he got the scholarship.
“After the interview was over, I called [my mom], and she goes, ‘So?’ and I go, ‘Well, they gave me one,’ and she just burst out into tears,” he says.
He then drove back to his hometown to celebrate.
“When I got home, of course, you know, they had some champagne, and we never have champagne,” he says.
Hofer is due to leave Brownback’s office to start his Oxford studies in the fall, but he may cross paths with the senator again. Just next door, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), also a Rhodes scholar, met one of his senior staffers, Neil Brown, at a Rhodes scholar event before Brown left for England on his own Rhodes scholarship. Both men call the experience a defining time in their lives.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for any young person,” says Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It changed my life in terms of discovering the world.”
Hofer is still getting used to the idea that he is now a part of that group. But he is looking forward to moving to Europe — he has never been — and pursuing his calling in international development work.
“I’ve been presented with these amazing opportunities, and these blessings, and I mean, obviously [God’s] got big plans for me in some way, shape or form,” he says, “and I just hope not to mess this up and take full advantage of the opportunities that are laid out in front of me."