Naomi Mburu, 21, is the first student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to receive the Rhodes Scholarship. (Marlayna Demond /Marlayna Demond for UMBC)

Earlier this week, Lee Blaney showed up for a morning class at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he works as an associate professor. He was at the front of the room getting ready, doing professor stuff. Then he heard his students begin to cheer.

"I was like, 'What's happening?' I looked up, and Naomi had walked in," Blaney said. "She stole the show."

Honestly, maybe Naomi Mburu should get used to that, because the 21-year-old chemical engineering major has become a bit of a celebrity at the school. She was this month named a Rhodes scholar, becoming the first UMBC student to win the prestigious award.

"The whole department is very proud of her accomplishments," Blaney said. "We're hoping to find more Naomis in the coming years."

The Rhodes Scholarship, which sends recipients to study at the University of Oxford in England, is a remarkable achievement, both for Mburu and the institution that has shepherded her. After Mburu's friends learned she had earned the Rhodes, they threw her a surprise party in her apartment. When the president of her university learned, he began to cry.

"It was so meaningful to so many," university President Freeman Hrabowski said. "Everybody gets excited about athletics, but we need to get as excited about the life of the mind, and about preparing leaders. And we are passionate here about that."

Mburu, the daughter of immigrants from Kenya, is one of 32 American students to receive the Rhodes and one of a handful with Washington-area ties this year. This year's group of Rhodes scholars includes 10 African American students, the most ever elected in an American class, according to a Rhodes Trust news release.

Mburu learned she was a winner after she and other finalists, including the Naval Academy's Nathan Bermel, went through interviews for the scholarship.

Mburu and Bermel played Uno as they awaited the decision. When their names were announced, he asked her to pinch him, to make sure this was real.

She did. It was.

"I've just been getting a lot of text messages and emails and calls from people, some people I don't even know, just congratulating me and telling me how much it means to not just me, but to the entire UMBC community, and also the African American community," Mburu said.

At her university, Mburu, a senior from Ellicott City, Md., serves as a peer mentor for younger students interested in chemical engineering. She is passionate about supporting education and diversity in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Mburu said she hopes her Rhodes achievement serves as an inspiration to young African American girls. Maybe it already has.

"I've had so many African American young females contact me saying, 'Oh my God, that's so inspiring,' " she said.

Mburu picked the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a public school with more than 13,000 students, over a number of top institutions, including Princeton, she said.

"That whole process, that was difficult for us," said her father, Joseph Mburu. "Obviously, we wanted her to go to the best school that she can. And being admitted to a few Ivy League schools, we were thinking among ourselves and wondering, is this the best thing for her?"

It worked out okay, seems like?

Mburu's mother, who works at the university as an accounting manager, described her daughter as studious and focused, hard-working and deliberative about her life choices. Joyce Mburu said she has heard from members of the Kenyan community who are excited about her daughter's accomplishment.

"Everybody just wowing about how much it means to them and their children, and how inspired they are for their children, that they can achieve this," she said.

At Oxford, Mburu would like to work with a professor who is developing heat-transfer systems for nuclear fusion reactors — basically, cooling systems. She plans to work toward a doctorate in engineering science.

She is also interested in educational issues and how resources are distributed. Mburu wants to help create more opportunities for students, and she would like to go into policy work someday so she can help influence that.

Hrabowski, the university president, said the country has an "unbelievably large pool of children" from all sorts of backgrounds who have the potential to some day win a Rhodes, like Mburu did. He mentioned an "old-fashioned message" that needs to be remembered: When a student has family members who offer their support, teachers who care and professors who love her, anything is possible.

"We must be reminded of that for every child. It's so important," he said. "And that's why I cry. Out of hope."