It has always been hard to keep up with Rachel Skokowski.
Before she could even walk, she was known for doing laps around tables on her knees.
As a grade schooler, Skokowski took up running and later starred for the cross country and track teams at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif.
Skokowski came across the country to Princeton University in 2011 and made the Tiger cross country and track teams as a walk-on.
She has set quite a pace in the classroom as well, making Phi Beta Kappa and earning the R. Percy Alden Memorial Prize in French her junior year and the Haarlow Prize, awarded by the Council of the Humanities, as a sophomore. She also served as a member of the Council’s Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows.
Last month, Skokowski received the ultimate college accolade, being named as a 2015 Rhodes Scholarship winner.
For Skokowski, a big part of the joy of winning the Rhodes derives from how it reflects on the Tiger cross country and track programs.
“My teammates were so excited,” recalled Skokowski. “One of the first people I told was coach (Peter Farrell). He said he had a few other Rhodes Scholars in the program. It is great to add to the legacy of the program.”
A great part of Skokowski’s Princeton experience has been the daily interaction with her teammates.
“We have a really big team with people from different parts of country and different backgrounds,” said Skokowski.
“It feels like a family, you come down and see these people everyday. As coach says, you leave everything behind at school and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It is taking a couple of hours away from the pressure of school. While there is stress in competing, it is a refreshing break that helps you concentrate when you get back to your studies.”
Skokowski did experience some stress in becoming a part of the Tiger running program as she had to earn a spot through walking on.
“I won everything I could in my league but my times weren’t as fast as the recruited athletes,” said Skokowski, whose father is a masters runner and encouraged her to take up the sport.
“I was between Division 1 and Division 3 and I really wanted to get on a D-1 program. Princeton was the most welcoming to walk-ons. I loved meeting with coach Farrell.”
Skokowski’s love of the sport helped her become a solid contributor. “My best season in cross country was freshman year,” said Skokowski.
“I wanted so badly to prove myself. I trained so hard over the summer and improved a lot. I made the Heps team; it was great. After freshman year, I switched to the 800. I train with cross country but only ran one race.”
Farrell, for his part, sensed early on that Skokowski would be a good fit for his program.
“When I met in my office with Rachel and her mother, she said she wanted to run if she got into to Princeton,” recalled Farrell.
“Her times were on the fringe but I was impressed with her as a person. It is good to have people like that in your program. I like taking walk-ons, they ask for nothing, they are appreciative and grateful for the opportunity. She is terrific.”
While Skokowski hasn’t been a star for the Tigers, she brings something special on a daily basis.
“She keeps that positive attitude; she keeps everyone upbeat,” added Farrell. “She keeps spirits up. I have never seen her have a bad day or a bad moment.”
Skokowski’s Rhodes Scholarship is a huge positive for the Tiger track program.
“The women’s track team had been around since 1977 and Rachel is our fourth Rhodes Scholar, that is a good number,” said Farrell.
“It speaks volumes about the culture of the program that we have people like this on the team. We have true scholar athletes. She is a role model who comes down every day and is a part of it and has achieved so much in other areas.”
Skokowski’s scholarly pursuits headed in a new direction when she was exposed to art history at Princeton.
“I tried a painting class but that wasn’t for me,” said Skokowski. “I became interested in art history and working in museums. Italian Renaissance painting was my first art history course.”
Combining her blossoming love for art with French helped Skokowski put together a program that accommodated her many interests.
“I never thought I would be majoring in French; my high school had a wonderful languages program so I was able to jump into literature and philosophy,” said Skokowski, who is majoring in French and Italian with a focus on French and art history.
“I found that the French department was a good place to do interdisciplinary research, combining literature and art, philosophy and art; there are so many different courses.”
During her junior year, Skokowski started the course that resulted in the Rhodes Scholarship.
“I have always been interested to going to the U.K. to study after college,” said Skokowski, noting that both of her parents studied at Oxford.
“I went to an informations session with the fellowship office as a junior and I saw it was a possibility. I started working on the application in June and I worked on it all summer.”
In the fall, Skokowski finalized her application, getting support from Princeton.
“You have to be endorsed by your school so I submitted the application to Princeton at the end of August,” said Skokowski, noting that she was in contact all summer with Deirdre Moloney, the Princeton director of fellowship advising, often via Skype due to studying in Europe.
“Once I was endorsed by Princeton, I entered the national competition in September. I found out that I got an interview in November.”
As an applicant from the California-North district, Skokowski headed out to San Francisco on the weekend before Thanksgiving for the final step of the Rhodes process, an interview before a panel of judges deciding who would get the coveted scholarships.
“It was challenging; I have had interviews for fellowships but they were one-on-one or two-on-one,” noted Skokowski.
“This is a panel of six-to-10 people who are former Rhodes Scholars and very intelligent people. The fellowship department gave us a mock interview with previous Princeton Rhodes scholars and professors. One of the questions they asked was the same as one I was asked in the actual interview.”
Utilizing the endurance from her running background, Skokowski made it through the grueling final days of the process.
“You have a reception Friday night which is not an interview but it is, you don’t want to make a faux pas,” said Skokowski.
“The interviews are only 25 minutes, there are slots from 8:30 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Once interviews are over they make the applicants wait in a room while the judges deliberate. It was about four and a half hours. They bring us all in and announce the winners. They announced my name second so that added to the drama. I was so, so excited; it didn’t hit me until my parents hugged me.”
At Oxford, Skokowski will be studying in its European Enlightenment Program, working toward a MPhil in Modern Languages.
“It will be similar to what I have been doing at Princeton, it is a masters in modern languages in an interdisciplinary program,” said Skokowski.
“I get to work with the curator of the Wallace Collection in London, which has the biggest collection of French enlightenment art.”
Skokowski’s career aspirations center on pushing the boundaries of art curation.
“I want to help art outreach, getting people to see the value of art through exciting exhibits and interdisciplinary programs,” asserted Skokowski, who has curated or interned at the Morgan Library and Museum, the Princeton Art Museum, and for the Santa Fe Arts Commission. “Art museums need to be more tech savvy, with more use of interactive and digital platforms.”
While Skokowski will undoubtedly be busy with her studies in England, she plans to keep up with her running.
“I do expect to compete,” said Skokowski. “Oxford is a good place to run. Grad students can compete for the team, there are all sorts of levels. I look forward to running for fun, without the competitive pressure over here.”