UO graduate is second-ever to be a Gates-Cambridge Scholar

Cambridge University

For the second time in University of Oregon history, a Duck has won the Gates-Cambridge Scholarship.

Alex Mentzel, a 2020 graduate who majored in German literature and theater arts, will be one of only 60 students nationally in the 2022 class of Gates-Cambridge Scholars. Amelia Fitch, a 2016 biology graduate, was the first UO student to earn the honor in 2016. 

Mentzel is currently pursuing a Master of Philosophy in European, Latin American and comparative literature and culture as a Cambridge Trust and Schröders German Scholarship Fund fellow, a required step toward a doctorate at Cambridge. He plans to pursue his doctorate in German supported by the Gates-Cambridge Scholarship.

Alex MentzelThe scholarship is one of the most competitive and prestigious in the world, with an acceptance rate of about 1.3 percent. It will cover the full cost of doctoral study at Cambridge for up to four years, along with a generous stipend.

Gabe Paquette, vice provost for academic affairs, was the Clark Honors College dean when Mentzel was an undergraduate there; he also served on his thesis committee.

“Alex is an uncommonly brilliant and magnetic person,” Paquette said. “Not only a polymath, he is an infinitely curious and creative person. He cares deeply about both the subjects he studies and the communities in which he pursues his work. The epitome of the CHC's values, I am unsurprised that he has received this prestigious accolade and will now have the opportunity to pursue doctoral work at Cambridge.” 

Paquette first encouraged Mentzel to apply for the prestigious scholarship in 2020, but he didn’t advance at that time.

“Cambridge was not on my radar until Gabe pushed me to seriously consider it as a natural home for my academic work,” Mentzel said.  

Another important mentor was professor Sonja Boos, a UO German professor until her passing in June 2021. She helped guide his honors college thesis and encouraged his efforts to pursue his master’s at the University of Cambridge.

“I can’t overstate the influence of Sonja’s intellectually rigorous pedagogy and deeply generous mentorship of me and of all her students,” Mentzel said. “Without her guidance, I would not have trusted myself to pursue ‘thought’ as interdisciplinary in nature. Almost everything I aim to accomplish during my doctoral studies has its origins in what Sonja taught me from our very first class together in my first quarter as a freshman at the UO.”

Last summer, Mentzel was in Pennsylvania caring for his terminally ill grandfather when he received the email telling him he had secured Cambridge Trust and Schröders German Scholarship funding, enabling him to pursue his master’s. From the cafeteria of the hospice facility, he wrote a text to Boos telling her the good news.  

“I sent her the message, and a few days later, her husband replied and said Sonja had just passed,” Mentzel said. “But he was able to read the text to her in time.”

With Boos’ encouragement to try again, and with Paquette’s support, Mentzel applied once more for a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship. This time, he successfully advanced to the final interview.

Mentzel also credits the valuable support he received from professors Ian McNeely and Dorothee Ostmeier, who prepared him during mock interviews, as well as helping prepare for the Marshall Scholarship, for which Mentzel was a finalist in 2019 and 2020. McNeely recalls that he and Mentzel had never met, and that Mentzel was surprised when he began posing questions on Brecht’s theatrical techniques and Kafka’s storytelling devices.

“But to his credit, he rolled with it and didn’t skip a beat,” McNeely said. “It’s that type of intellectual agility, which comes from deep learning, that is at least one part of what makes Alex such a special student. But in some ways, it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. He’s done so much with German, with the arts, with acting, with social activism, with technology and with world travel that he truly deserves to be considered a Renaissance man.”

Ostmeier also was impressed with the breadth of Mentzel’s knowledge during the mock interviews. 

“Our vibrant conversations involved Alex’s broad interdisciplinary studies in literature, theater, history, performance, media and cultural theory, and continue to inspire us,” she said. “With his artistic and scholarly grounding at the UO and a doctorate in German from Cambridge, focusing on emergent technologies and virtual reality environments, Alex brings fantasy and independence of thought to developing leadership mechanisms that navigate our futures that have not yet been invented.”  

Mentzel’s doctoral research will focus on the performance principles and architectures of online environments and examine how virtual and augmented reality disturb the seeming solidity of civic infrastructures and commercial online “worlds.”

“Questions of how societal constructs are physically articulated in the ever-growing virtual space are fundamentally political, as there is great risk that negative consequences, such as discriminatory systems of surveillance, will be amplified in cross-reality environments,” Mentzel said. “I'm interested in trying to analyze and understand this continuously emerging virtual environment and how it is changing the world around us.”

For more information on distinguished scholarships, visit the Office of Distinguished Scholarships.

—By Laurie Notaro, Clark Honors College