UC Santa Cruz celebrates its first Rhodes Scholar

Garima Desai wearing her UC Santa Cruz graduation stole
Garima Desai graduated from UC Santa Cruz this past spring with a double major in environmental studies and economics. She’ll continue on a similar track at Oxford, where she’ll pursue dual master’s degrees.

Garima Desai made history on Saturday, when she became UC Santa Cruz's first ever Rhodes Scholarship winner. The awards were announced virtually, and Desai was named among the top 32 scholars from across the U.S. who will have all of their expenses paid to attend graduate school at Oxford University. There were more than 2,000 applicants to the program this year.

"When I first found out that I was even a finalist, it was incredible," Desai said. "So finding out that I had won was really surreal."

The reality is slowly sinking in as Desai plans for her future. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz this past spring with a double major in environmental studies and economics, and she'll continue on a similar track at Oxford, where she'll pursue dual master's degrees.

During her time at UC Santa Cruz, Desai was a member of College Nine. She took on many leadership roles, including working as both an undergraduate teaching assistant and a research assistant helping to study elements of urbanization that intersect with climate change. Through those efforts and her coursework, she left a lasting impression on many of her professors.

"I've had about 100 students take my environmental economics course over the last four years, and Garima was by far the highest-scoring student," said Jeremy West, an assistant professor of economics. "She also has incredible poise. It's one thing to be brilliant and academically gifted, but it's another to be able to communicate well and convey your insights."

West was among a group of UC Santa Cruz faculty who supported Desai's Rhodes Scholar application by writing letters of recommendation and helping her with interview practice. Adam Millard-Ball, an associate professor of environmental studies, was also among that group. He's been a mentor to Desai for several years and has come to know the strength of her character.

"She's genuinely giving and humble, and I've seen that both in classes and when she's teaching or in a lab group setting," said Millard-Ball. "In her time here at UC Santa Cruz, she did a lot to help other people succeed. Garima is a great inspiration that all of our students, in different ways, can push the boundaries and go to places that are new territory for UCSC grads."

Desai credits her time at UC Santa Cruz for opening her eyes to a wide variety of strategies for creating change on environmental issues. Since graduating, she's been working as a transportation planner in Oakland, a role she never would have imagined four years ago.

"When you think of an environmentalist, you don't necessarily think of a transportation planner," she said. "But I'm interested in urbanization, because the way we build our cities is long term, and it has an impact on carbon emissions. I'm also interested in how we can use the incredible tools of economics to create groundbreaking policies."

Desai said Millard-Ball's mentorship helped her find the confidence to dream big as she pursues these interests.

"He saw potential in me that I didn't know I had," she said. "He was the one who told me 'you are academically excellent'. I never really believed it until he told me."

Both Garima Desai and her older sister, Mansi (Stevenson '16, linguistics; M.A. '18, linguistics), attended UC Santa Cruz. Their degrees are now displayed proudly in the family home of their mother, Hetal, and father, Pranav. The whole family couldn't be more thrilled for Garima, and they're grateful to her professors for the role they played in supporting her over the years.

"Parents always believe in their child," said Hetal Desai, "but when the professors and the university believe in them, it makes a brighter future for all the students."

As Garima Desai embarks on her next chapter, she'll carry with her the spiritual teachings of her ashram, where she first learned the practice of seva, or providing service for the world, which has inspired her environmental activism. And now, as a Rhodes Scholar, she'll pair that deep motivation with a newfound confidence that nothing is out of reach.

"I've learned that, even if it feels like there's not a path carved out for you, you can carve your own path and set your own destination," she said. "If you truly believe in what you're doing, even if no one has done it before, you can do it."