Senior Brenda McCollum headed home for the winter break expecting to spend it the way she always had: milking cows on her family’s dairy farm and celebrating her birthday and Christmas. This year, though, she was also waiting for news from the University of Oxford in England.
“They emailed me the Wednesday before Christmas,” McCollum said. “I woke up to the email around 7 a.m. and saw it was from the University of Oxford’s admissions department. I was crying because I didn’t want to open it, but then I did and I was screaming because it was so cool!”
McCollum has been accepted into the African studies graduate program at Oxford, one of the most selective universities in the world. From her point of view, “It was the best present ever.”
How does someone from Fall River, Kansas—a town whose population peaked at 460 in the late 1800s and has dwindled to nearly double digits at times since—find herself preparing to move to England and study at one of the world’s preeminent educational institutions?
It starts with McCollum’s first calling as an aspiring veterinarian.
“Growing up on a dairy farm, there were always so many things that I couldn’t do for the animals,” she said. “[When something happens,] the sad truth is you can’t always save all of them, so it would always upset me a lot. I was like, ‘Well, if I had the knowledge, I could do so much more.’ I wanted to help them, and I wanted to help people like my dad because having a good farm vet is so important.”
McCollum’s family has owned its farm since the 1880s, handing it down from generation to generation, so aligning her career aspirations with the family business was a natural fit.
With her academic path decided, McCollum excelled in the classroom and as a distance runner at Bluestem High School and as a race walker in summer age-group track meets. Knowing that she wanted to continue competing in college, McCollum asked her coach to research schools in Kansas where she could continue being a student-athlete and compete in race walking, where her athletic passion lies and where she really shines. At the junior level, she has represented the United States three times at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup, the last time in 2014 in Taicang, China.
At the collegiate level in the United States, only schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics offer competition in race walking. Junior colleges and National Collegiate Athletic Association institutions do not include it as part of their track and field programs, despite its status as an Olympic sport. This narrowed McCollum’s choice of schools to three, one of which she ruled out because of its proximity to her hometown and one that she “just didn’t think was right” for her after visiting and learning more about it. Wanting a new experience and a campus that felt comfortable, McCollum signed a letter of intent to become a Baker Wildcat in October of her senior year. Four months later, she was named one of two Harter Scholars based on her academic excellence and potential to succeed in the college classroom and received four years of full tuition.
One semester into college, though, McCollum’s academic plans changed.
“A bunch of things culminated and I realized [a biology major] wasn’t for me,” she said, “[but] I took a history course during my first semester as an elective with Dr. [John] Richards. That class was so much fun, and I knew I didn’t want to be a biology major and I felt kind of lost, so I thought since I’ve always liked history, maybe I could be a teacher.”
According to Richards, McCollum has the motivation to achieve in any field she chooses to pursue a career.
“Brenda is an exceptional student,” he said. “I don’t see a scenario that will slow her down. She really is that dedicated and that intelligent.”
While deciding on a new career path, it may have helped that McCollum already had a knack for tutoring, having helped other students with their studies during high school. In her collegiate career, she has continued as a peer tutor through Baker’s Student Academic Success office. Having an inside peek at her mother’s career as a high school educator also helped McCollum decide that she would rather pursue a path as a college professor than teach at the K-12 level.
“I’d prefer working somewhere like Baker, personally, but that’s just because I went here and it’s awesome,” McCollum said.
After officially becoming a history major, McCollum’s college life gained steam. She took more history classes and developed a passion for African history, noting how underrepresented the topic is in the history curriculum at both the K-12 and collegiate levels in the United States.She added a second major in international studies as well as minors in political science, religion, and German. She joined the History Club, Cardinal Key Honor Society, and Baker’s parMentor program; became a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority; and made her mark on the Wildcat cross country and track and field teams. Experiencing consistent success in both indoor and outdoor races, McCollum recently qualified for the 3,000-meter race walk at the NAIA Indoor Track and Field Championship in March 2018, her seventh trip to nationals. Last May at the 2017 NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championship, she placed fourth in the women’s 5,000-meter race walk and earned All-America honors for the fourth time in her career. McCollum is a seven-time Heart of America Athletic Conference Champion and a three-time NAIA Scholar-Athlete.
“The community here gets you ready [for life after Baker] because it gets you so involved on campus in a lot of different ways. It really helps you explore who you are as a person,” McCollum said. “My professors got me ready academically because they always pushed me harder than I wanted to be pushed, but it was good for me, obviously.”
Because McCollum’s current favorite aspect of African history is the influence of Islam on different African cultures in Eastern and Central Africa and how they influenced African culture and African history, her senior seminar paper focused on the differences between how the Portuguese and Arabs have historically treated East Africans.
She is so passionate about the subject that she mentioned submitting her paper to a conference in Birmingham, England, in her personal statement to Oxford—a promise she knows she has to make good on now that she has been accepted. Because she is proficient at managing a hectic schedule, McCollum has a plan for this too: submit the paper in February, attend the conference in September, begin classes at Oxford in October, have her master’s degree in hand in July 2019.
“It’s only a nine-month program, so it’s really quick,” she noted.
After that, McCollum has two options to consider. The first includes pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in what is widely regarded as the nation’s premier African studies program. Option two would keep McCollum at Oxford for another round of studies, this time concluding with a doctorate in philosophy. No matter which path she chooses, McCollum knows she wants to teach in the United States after completing her doctoral studies.
For now, though, McCollum is happy basking in the glow of the acceptance letter in her email inbox.
“It took like two weeks for it to set in that it was actually real,” she said. “I’ve been planning on applying to Oxford for a few years now, but it’s such a lofty goal, obviously, so I wasn’t planning on going there. It was just a far-fetched hope, but then I got in!”
As she continues to soak it all in, McCollum can’t help but think about the path she’s taken to this point.
“I think it’s the funniest thing ever that I come from this town of 150 people and I literally live on a dairy farm,” McCollum said. “I milked my cows numerous times over break, and now I’m going to Oxford. I actually milked my cows a few hours after I found out that I got into Oxford.”