Annick Routhier-Labadie '08, Seton Hall's first Rhodes Scholar, heads to the University of Oxford this fall.
At first blush it was like a moment you might catch on ESPN's SportsCenter. A group of basketball players burst into a spontaneous locker-room party, screaming with joy and enveloping a teammate in hugs. These women weren't celebrating a key athletic victory, however, or applauding a player for a great game. They were congratulating teammate Annick Routhier-Labadie '08 on a different kind of victory; just minutes before the start of a game, she learned she had been awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
“It was so cool,” recalls Routhier-Labadie, who is Seton Hall's first Rhodes Scholar. After finishing her Seton Hall coursework in just three years, Routhier-Labadie decamped to her native Quebec where she embarked on graduate studies in applied ethics at Université Laval. There, she played basketball, as she had for Seton Hall.
Just before a Laval game last November, Routhier-Labadie's cellphone rang. It was a representative of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee, calling with good news, which the startled player immediately shared with her teammates. “I didn't have a really good game,” she jokes.
Routhier-Labadie can be forgiven for having an off day on the court. A chronic overachiever, she maintained a perfect grade-point average as a physics major at Seton Hall, worked for The Setonian, and tutored fellow students -- all while playing basketball, a commitment many have likened to a full-time job. “She is a young lady who took great advantage of the college opportunity,” says Phyllis Mangina, the University's head women's basketball coach, who recruited Routhier-Labadie from Rochebelle High School in Quebec. “It wasn't just about basketball.”
The diversity of Routhier-Labadie's activities and interests at Seton Hall -- she also draws and writes poetry -- reflects her status as a sort of modern-day Renaissance woman, exactly the kind of person the Rhodes Scholarship Trustees seek to reward. Cecil J. Rhodes, the British colonial pioneer who initiated the scholarships, wrote in his will that he wanted applicants who were more than “mere bookworms,” and who excelled in school, sport, fellowship and “moral force of character.”
Those who know Routhier-Labadie say she has those qualities in spades. An eloquent speaker in both English and French, she also likes to crack jokes, and she frequently sums up people, circumstances and situations simply as “cool.” Even as she adhered to a rigorous academic and athletic schedule, Routhier-Labadie made time for volunteer work, reading to schoolchildren in nearby Newark, working at the St. John's soup kitchen, and participating in a pen-pal program with students at St. Rose of Lima School in Newark. “We get a good number of strong student-athletes, but she's one of the most extraordinary we've had,” says Matt Geibel, the academic adviser to the women's basketball team.
Routhier-Labadie admits it wasn't always easy juggling the competing demands of school, Division I sports, extracurricular activities and volunteering, but she credits her father with inspiring her to think big. She remembers being in the fourth grade and watching Mike Labadie launch a football program at Laval, a daunting task in a country that worships ice hockey.
“People didn't think it was possible,” she says. “It taught me a lot about starting projects that go against the grain.”
Her mother, Dominique Routhier, is dean of students at St. Lawrence College. Both parents instilled a love of basketball in their daughter, who started playing in the backyard at age 5. Later, as a high-school player, she would watch the University of Connecticut and University of Tennessee women's basketball teams, and fantasize about playing in the NCAA.
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So when Coach Mangina offered her a full scholarship and a chance to play Big East basketball, she jumped at the chance -- even though it meant turning down college acceptances from Princeton and Yale. “Looking back at my three-plus years at Seton Hall, I think it was a good decision,” she says. “I got a good education, and I was able to take advantage of everything the school had to offer.”
Not surprisingly, some of Routhier-Labadie's favorite memories of Seton Hall involve basketball, including a big game against UConn, in which the Pirates played in front of 17,000 Huskies fans.
She also appreciated the cultural diversity at Seton Hall. “I wasn't used to that,” she says. “Back home, everyone was a carbon copy of one another.”
A desire to further broaden her horizons prompted Routhier-Labadie to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. She wanted to see the world, and figured studying abroad would be the ideal way to combine her wanderlust with her academic goals; the Rhodes Scholarship offers select students a chance to study at the University of Oxford in England.
Routhier-Labadie says she was unsure of her chances at earning the coveted scholarship after her interview for it. “I thought I had done horribly,” she says, and she remembers telling her Laval teammates that she didn't think she was going to get the scholarship. Minutes later she got the call informing her she was one of 11 Canadian students chosen.
She plans at Oxford to pursue a master's degree in biomedical engineering, a discipline that combines her passions for pure science and medicine. Routhier-Labadie concedes she is getting a little nervous about her impending move to England, but she's excited, too, about the prospect of meeting new people and traveling though Europe, perhaps visiting some of her former Seton Hall teammates, who hail from Finland, Poland and other countries.
And she'll have company on her trip to Oxford. Several of the Canadian Rhodes Scholars are communicating over e-mail and plan to leave together for England. “I'm really excited to meet all those people,” she says. “It is going to be really cool.”
Stephanie N. Mehta is a New York-based financial writer.
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