Nicholas M. Schmitz, by his own account, was "not extremely stellar" as a student at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. He was eager to get on with his life, to say goodbye to books and homework. So after his sophomore year, at age 17, he dropped out and joined the Marine Corps.
"I can't look back and psychoanalyze myself at the time," Schmitz, 23, said yesterday. "I just wanted to be independent. I wanted to be out on my own."
What a difference time can make: Schmitz, who went from enlisted Marine to midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, is one of 32 college students from across the country, including three from the Washington area, selected as Rhodes scholars for 2006, the scholarship trust announced yesterday.
"I wouldn't recommend the route I took to anyone," said Schmitz, a fourth-year student at the academy who is majoring in political science and economics. "But if you show enough initiative, eventually people will notice it."
Also headed to Oxford University in England next October for two or three years of graduate study as Rhodes scholars are Rahul Satija and William L. Hwang, both Duke University seniors from Potomac who were classmates at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
"I don't know how to describe how I feel right now," said Hwang, 21. Like the others, he was informed Saturday that he had been awarded the scholarship. "I'm definitely very happy," he said. "But the real privilege was getting to meet the other finalists [at Saturday's selection interviews] and the members of the selection committee. It's just an honor that's hard to put into words."
The Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 in the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes, a diamond magnate. Winners are chosen on the basis of academic achievement, leadership potential, integrity and other qualities.
The 32 scholars chosen Saturday were among 903 applicants from 333 colleges. Although the value of the scholarship varies depending on the academic discipline that a student pursues, the average value is about $40,000 a year, the scholarship trust said.
Hwang, who is majoring in biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering and physics, said he intends to study biological physics at Oxford. At Duke, where he is a member of the volleyball team, he founded a nonprofit group that develops engineering programs for financially needy children.
"I'm definitely interested in research" as a career, he said. "I'd also like to keep working with outreach programs for kids from underprivileged backgrounds."
Satija, 20, a violinist, who is concertmaster for the Duke Symphony Orchestra, is majoring in biology and music. He said he plans to focus on the field of bioinformatics at Oxford.
"The human genome was sequenced," Satija said, "and all we got was a long string of letters -- 3 billion letters. It's like a phone book with all the names removed. So you know what the phone numbers are, but you don't know who you're calling. All the information is there, but you don't know what it means. So what I'm working on is computer software that will analyze the sequence and tell us where the important information is."
As for Schmitz, he is one of three academy midshipmen selected as Rhodes scholars. The others are Paul J. Angelo, of Columbia Station, Ohio, and Jacquelyn R. Hanna, of Lisbon, N.D. Navy Ensign William R. Kelly, of New York, who graduated from the academy in the spring, also was awarded a Rhodes scholarship.
"To be honest, it hasn't fully hit me yet," said Schmitz, of Bethesda, a varsity gymnast at the academy. "I still can't believe it. I'm absolutely ecstatic."
As a Marine corporal, Schmitz learned of a program through which enlisted men, after passing a battery of tests, can be admitted to the academy. Because he did not have a high school diploma, his superiors turned him down when he first asked to take the exams. But after completing several courses at a community college, he was allowed to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., in 2000.
Two years later, he started as a midshipman in Annapolis.
Schmitz, who intends to study political theory at Oxford, said he is not certain whether he will make a career of the military. But the former dropout is sure of one thing.
"I'd like to come back to the academy," he said. "I'd like to teach political science."