OSU's 2005 Gates Cambridge Scholarship winners return for campus visits
By Jim Mitchell
Two undergraduate students at Oklahoma State University made big news when they won Gates Cambridge Scholarships in 2005, giving them a “full ride” to graduate degrees at the prestigious university in England.
Both Joel Halcomb and Ashleigh (Hildebrand) Ross returned to OSU this past year. Looking back, they agree that one of the first pluses in being selected at the same time was to immediately have a friend in graduate school.
“It was great to have Joel as a built-in friend when we were transplanted to Cambridge. He was so good about listening and offering feedback on ideas,” says Ross.
“We prepared all the paperwork for the Gates scholarship to Cambridge together through the Office of Scholar Development at OSU,” Halcomb says. “It was nice to have someone you know to share the experience once we got there.”
The scholar development director at OSU, Dr. Robert Graalman (now retired), was especially happy to see the former students return to campus, since he was the man who inspired the pair to go for the scholarship in the first place.
“These are two very talented individuals who put in the work to win a coveted honor that was a historical accomplishment at OSU. A set number of scholarships a year are given to American students, and to have two students receive such an honor and opportunity in the same year was very fortunate,” says Graalman. “I’m so proud of what they accomplished in going to Cambridge and pursuing successful careers that are very meaningful to each of them.”
Halcomb was returning for his initiation into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society at OSU and to speak about his life and work in England. At Cambridge, he studied the early modern history of Great Britain with an emphasis on religion.
“As a double major (history and math) at OSU, I was really leaning toward a higher degree in math until I began working with Dr. (James) Cooper, who was gathering information on the history of colonial-era Congregational churches in the U.S.,” Halcomb says. “The more I transcribed the information from each church James visited, the more I found I enjoyed it. He cornered the colonial- era, but we thought there may be similar records in England, and we couldn’t find anyone who’d worked on that.”
Halcomb’s doctoral work recreated Puritan religious practices and religious politics during Britain’s mid-17th century
“Puritan Revolution.” Since earning his doctorate, he has worked at the universities of St. Andrews, Cambridge and now is a lecturer at East Anglia in Norwich, England, where he teaches early modern British history.
“Of course, I had a lot of great times with friends at OSU and those social experiences were fun,” Halcomb told OStateTV. “But what sticks with me the most were the classes that changed me as a person because they challenged me.”
Ross, who earned a chemical engineering degree at OSU, says she cherishes her time at Cambridge, where she received a master’s degree in environmental policy and was inspired to follow up with double master’s degrees in chemical engineering and technology policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The master’s degree in environmental policy I received while on the Gates Fellowship changed the course of my life,” Ross says. “Not only was it an incredible educational and cultural experience, it reawakened in me a deep passion for environmental protection, sustainability and, most importantly, realistic strategies to strive toward these ideals.”
Ross, who is in remission after battling cancer, was a senior reservoir engineer at ConocoPhillips preparing to move to BP when she visited campus to speak to students in the OSU Honors College and attend a function in honor of her former dean.
Ross says her work focuses on carbon capture and storage, which will take several forms at BP, including using carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery or in cement production. It can also be stored underground in depleted gas or saline formations.
“I’m committed to using innovation and technology to minimize the environmental and climate impact of energy production and use,” she says.
As part of her job, Ross has traveled to several nations and calls Jakarta, Indonesia, her favorite stop so far.
“I taught a training class there, and it was just such a different culture than I’d ever been exposed to before,” she says.
“The people were so friendly and so interested in learning. I went with a really fun group of people from work too, so it was a great experience.”
Ross holds fond memories of OSU. “The diversity and variety available in such a beautiful, accessible place — whether that’s different kinds of people, or different nooks for studying, or organizations to be part of — is such a unique offering, and I really miss that.”
Ross may be making a return trip to Stillwater soon. The Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society has selected her as its next OSU inductee. The honor society chooses one graduate per year who excelled during their studies at OSU and have attained similar heights in their professional and personal lives. The Gates winners and Cambridge graduates will also have membership in the world’s most famous academic organization in common.