Sixteen years ago a Thai architect sold his firm and moved his wife and young son from Asia to start a new life in the Washington area. The reason: to get a better education for the child.
This week that child, Surachai Supattapone of McLean, became one of 32 U.S. students named as this year's Rhodes scholars. The winners were picked from 1,073 applicants and judged on the basis of essays and interviews.
Supattapone, 22, a fourth-year student in a combined medical and doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is one of two Washington area residents to win what is generally regarded as this country's most prestigious academic honor. The other is Stewart M. Patrick, 22, of Garrett Park in Montgomery County and a student at Stanford University.
The Rhodes winners receive free tuition, a stipend and travel costs to study at Oxford University in England. They also receive an intangible benefit, the cachet of belonging to an elite circle that has produced prominent scholars and political leaders.
The scholarships come from the estate of Cecil J. Rhodes, a British explorer who made a fortune in the diamond mines of Africa and died in 1902.
The applicants are judged on academic achievement, and on their "moral dimension and humanitarian concerns," said David Alexander, American secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and president of Pomona College in southern California.
Applicants also must be "physically vigorous," though not necessarily varsity athletes, he said.
Supattapone said he feels a deep debt to his parents, Kiat and Ivy Supattapone, for the sacrifices they made on his behalf. His father had headed his own architecture firm in Thailand but had to start over as a draftsman in the United States, the son said. Now, Kiat Supattapone owns an architecture firm in Alexandria.
"It's not so much an obligation of force but more an obligation of love, to return the favor," he said. His parents never pressured him to succeed academically. "But I try to figure out what they like, like me staying away from drugs, alcohol, to try to accomplish as much as I can in school, sports, the things that I do," he said.
When Supattapone started school in the United States, he did not speak English and was a poor student. He attended Woodlin and Woodside elementary schools and Sligo Junior High, all in Silver Spring. In the seventh grade, he said, his grades began to improve after an English teacher encouraged him and praised his writing.
Supattapone next attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and, at age 18, graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a chemistry degree. He was on the college swim team and has a brown belt in karate.
Supattapone, who has published 14 scientific papers, will study physiology at Oxford. He hopes to combine a medical practice with research in neurology and psychiatry.
One of his goals is to better explain science to nonscientists. "They would understand why we should all learn to live together with more cooperation. That's the way nature and biology work," he said.
Stewart M. Patrick, the second local Rhodes winner, hopes to make his mark as an educator.
Patrick, who attended Garrett Park Elementary School and St. Albans School for Boys in the District, graduated from Stanford University in the spring and has been working as head teaching assistant in the undergraduate human biology program.
His specialty has been studying the interaction between human genetic and cultural evolution. But "I want to do more than research," he said. "I'm really interested in education in the United States. It's important for scientists to be on the cutting edge, but secondly it's more important to try to communicate ideas to the widest audience possible."
Patrick wants to be a professor of biological anthropology and increase awareness of the field of human biology at the college and high school levels. "There are biological problems so complex you need biology and social science perspectives to gain a full appreciation for human diversity and human behavior," he said.
Patrick played on the Stanford lacrosse team for three years and spent this summer as part of a research expedition to the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. He also has done archeological field work in the Peruvian highlands.
He is the middle son of Robert J. Patrick Jr. a tax lawyer for Price Waterhouse in the District, and Janet Cline Patrick, who manages a personnel service for the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. "My parents have been fantastic. They have always supported me whatever I do," he said.
Two other students at area universities also won Rhodes scholarships. Knute C. Buehler, 23, is a second-year student at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He is a native of Roseburg, Ore., a lumber town 70 miles south of Eugene.
Buehler attended the University of Oregon and pitched for three years for the baseball team. He will study international relations at Oxford and is intrigued at the idea of studying "American policy from a perspective outside the United States." He hopes to run for political office someday but plans to practice medicine in Oregon first. "I owe something to Oregon," he said.
The fourth winner is Stace D. Lindsay, a senior in international affairs at Georgetown University and a native of Billings, Mont. Lindsay, 22, will study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. He has a great interest in Latin America and is fluent in Spanish.
Lindsay took a leave of absence in his freshman year at Montana State University to work for a semester on rural development projects in the Dominican Republic. He spent this summer in Guatemala working in a program that helps train leaders for small communities.
Lindsay does not belong to an organized religion but said spiritual faith has been the motivating factor in his life. "When I read and study the words of Christ, they really challenge me to address the needs I see around me," he said.
He is not sure what career he will pursue. "I don't have my eyes focused on a position," he said. "I have my eyes focused on ideas."