Zachary Battles: A DO-IT Scholar becomes a Rhodes Scholar

December 22, 2000

Reprinted with permission from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 12, 2000. You can find the original article at the following url, http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2000/12/12/pa_north/srhodes12.htm.

Rhodes scholar's blindness gave him a will to succeed

By Ralph Vigoda, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Zachary J. Battles has ambition, guts and an extraordinary brain.

He is a math and computer whiz, loves the theater, and he leaves tomorrow for a second stint teaching English in Ukraine.

He is also blind.

Without sight almost since birth and adopted from a South Korean orphanage when he was 4, Battles, a 21-year-old senior at Pennsylvania State University, has spent his life proving that a lack of sight need not be a deterrent. On Saturday, the latest affirmation came when he was named one of 32 Rhodes scholars, earning one of the most prestigious academic fellowships in the world.

Next summer, he will go to Oxford, England, where he will spend at least two years pursuing a doctorate in numerical analysis.

He expects to graduate from Penn State in spring 2001 with three degrees: a bachelor's in math, and a bachelor's and master's in computer science.

And a minor in French.

Taking six to seven courses a semester, he has maintained a near-perfect grade-point average.

"I've always wanted to go to Oxford," said Battles, whose family lives in State College, a few blocks from campus. "This is just one of the ways of getting there. But I didn't focus on aiming for a Rhodes, because they're so difficult to get."

The winners, officially announced Sunday, came from 950 applicants nationwide. Battles learned of his selection Saturday, after being interviewed in New York City by a nine-member Rhodes board.

Three of the 32 scholars are from Pennsylvania, the most from any one state. They are Battles; Seth A. Bodnar of Franklin, who attends the U.S. Military Academy; and Brandon Miller of Mohrsville, a student at Princeton University.

The University of Pennsylvania's Lipika Goyal of Scotch Plains, N.J., and Thomas M. Pallathy of Newark, Del., and the University of Delaware, also were selected.

Applying for the Rhodes was actually an afterthought for Battles, said Mary Gage, who coordinates undergraduate fellowships at Penn State. Battles came to her after the school already had decided on its nominees. She told him he might want to apply next year.

"But I thought about it overnight and told him to try for it," she said. "When you look at what he's done to get there, he has to be looked at as a campus phenomenon."

Battles was adopted by Richard and Barbara Battles, becoming part of a family that eventually would grow to 18 children - 15 of them adopted - who now range in age from 5 to 31.

"We saw right away how bright he was," said Barbara Battles. "I worked with him part of each day, because we wanted to mainstream him into the school district, not send him to a special school. He learned Braille way before he started school."

His academic prowess was evident early on, and he thrived on challenges, his teachers say. After graduating from State College High School in 1997, he entered Penn State's Schreyer Honors College.

"He's been a very dedicated and committed scholar for many years," said Cheryl Achtenberg, the dean of Schreyer. "He has a tremendous power of concentration, so he can pick up different things very quickly. Usually, you only have to show him how to do something once and he has learned it forever.

"And he fends very well for himself. He doesn't lean on people to help him at all. He was well-known in school, well-liked and an inspiration for anyone who's acquainted with him."

Battles said his blindness - it is caused by the rare genetic eye disorder Leber's congenital amaurosis - played a part in his drive to prove nothing could hold him back.

"Every blind individual has a responsibility to show everyone else that they are just as capable of doing things," Battles said.

He has designed teaching tools for the blind. Last year, he was part of an international delegation that traveled to Costa Rica to exchange ideas with disabled residents of that country. Besides returning to Ukraine, he plans to take a two-week course in theater in London during his winter break before beginning the spring semester at Penn State.

"I've grown up loving the theater and wanted to expand my horizons," Battles said.

He is not sure whether he eventually will teach or continue with his research. He is sure he wants to continue to work with the disabled.

"There are different paths I can take," Battles said. "I'm just willing to help, however and whenever I can."


Ralph Vigoda's e-mail address is rvigoda@phillynews.com, © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.