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Religion Major Named Rhodes Scholar

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on November 21, 2016 02:22 PM

Rhodes Scholar Pema McLaughlin ’16 wrote their senior thesis on American Buddhism. Photo by Tom Humphrey

Religion major Pema M. McLaughlin ’16 was named a Rhodes Scholar on Sunday, becoming the 32nd Reed grad to win the prestigious award.

Pema compiled an impressive track record at Reed, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and winning the Class of ’21 Award for their senior thesis, “Pointing at the Moon,” which traced the development of Buddhism in America and posed deep questions about the nature and definition of religion.

Pema has also conducted research on Daoism, the Nation of Islam, and studied Chinese, history, humanities, and Japanese sword arts. Prof. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri [religion], who served as their thesis adviser, called Pema “an extraordinary student.”

Pema grew up in a Tibetan Buddhist community near Junction City, California, a remote town in Trinity County with a population of 400, and came to Reed on a full scholarship.

"Honestly, my first thought beyond just being very excited was that I was so excited to tell all of my Reed professors, who've gotten me to this moment," Pema said.

Pema took a religion class during their first year at Reed and was fascinated by the discipline. “The stakes are high, the history is bloody, and the responsibility to the people you’re writing about is profound,” Pema said. “Religion is such a compelling point of access to human culture. And the faculty in the Reed religion department are the most amazing professors in the world.”

Pema also worked in the Hauser Library, learned Chinese, joined a writers’ group, and volunteered with SEEDS, serving with local nonprofits such as Books to Prisoners and the Children’s Book Bank. “I’m so much more attentive to categories, assumptions, and the structures of how we think because of my time at Reed, they said. “I’m also super-comfortable discussing things in groups.”

Rhodes Scholarships are awarded to outstanding young scholars who demonstrate "intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service,” according to the Rhodes Trust. Each year, just 32 Americans are selected to the award, which provides financial support for winners to study at Oxford University, where Pema intends to study Buddhism and Sanskrit.

"I'm just so thrilled for and proud of Pema,” says Michelle Johnson, fellowships adviser at the Center for Life Beyond Reed. “I know they will engage thoughtfully and meaningfully with this experience, and it will be so exciting to see what comes next!"