‘I’ve made it this far largely because of where I’m from’: Noorvik man is now a Rhodes Scholar

Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell pictured by the Kobuk River. Zibell is a Harvard senior from Noorvik who was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. (Photo courtesy of Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell)

A university student from the Northwest Arctic village of Noorvik, population 600, was just awarded one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious academic awards. The Rhodes Scholarship funds two to three years of academic study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

In Noorvik, everyone spends a lot of time at the Noorvik Aqqaluk School. Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell, whose parents were teachers, spent even more time there.

“My dad would teach me these big words,” Zibell said. “And I was two years old, wandering around the gym asking people for ‘assistance’ rather than for ‘help.’ And people just got a kick out of that, and that’s the kind of thing that I think set me on the course that I’m on today.”

Though not Iñupiaq, both Zibell and his father grew up in the village. His ties to the community run deep. He says he was encouraged by everyone in Noorvik to develop a love of learning.

“Whenever they saw me walking around with a book, they would hype me up a little bit and cheer me on,” Zibell said. “Being a creature of attention the way I am, I think that positive reinforcement really had a Pavlovian effect where now I’m addicted to reading books.”

Zibell excelled as a student throughout high school, serving as a student member of the state Board of Education as well as being part of the U.S. Senate Youth Program. He says when he found out he was accepted to Harvard, he was at a Ravn airline terminal in Kotzebue, where he and surrounding passengers erupted in joyous celebration.

Zibell brought his love of reading to Harvard, where he studies comparative literature, primarily between Yiddish and Iñupiaq works.

“I look at specifically displacement and people losing land and the way that is reflected in poetry,” Zibell said.

Zibell wanted to continue his studies of cultural displacement and the efforts to revitalize culture, which led him to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. He said it was an arduous 7-month process where he was tasked with writing essays and other scholastic work, getting letters of recommendation and securing a sponsorship from Harvard. It didn’t help that Zibell was fighting COVID-19 when he started applying.

Though Harvard already has a competitive acceptance rate of around 4.7%, the acceptance rate for the Rhodes Scholarship is even lower, at roughly 0.7%. By the end of the process, when he was selected as a finalist, Zibell figured he was a long shot and prepared for the worst.

“And so when they actually said my name, and said that I won, I was completely unprepared,” Zibell said. “I had no idea how to react. I just stared at the Zoom camera in complete shock.”

Compared to his public celebration of getting accepted to Harvard, Zibell says getting the Rhodes Scholarship while hunkered down was more of a private affair. Though he admits he screamed with excitement out his window before calling his parents and other community members with the good news.

Zibell plans to study economic and social history while attending Oxford. He wants to tie all of his studies into helping support the culture of Native communities, as well as cultures of any communities in the world displaced by colonialism.

“Connect Iñupiaq revitalization work with Kalaallit revitalization work in Greenland or Irish revitalization work in Ireland,” Zibell said. “Because all of these fights are kind of the same work being done, the same fundamental struggle, for lack of a better word.”

Zibell says unlike some of his peers, many of whom come from well to do families, he owes everything to growing up in a tight-knit village.

“I’ve made it this far largely because of where I’m from and the people that raised me, and no shortage of blessings, of course,” Zibell said. “And it’s my responsibility to make sure that by my success, I can help other people. If I can’t do that, there’s no point in me having gotten this success in the first place.”

Zibell says the only uncertainty in his next steps will be if the pandemic forces him to learn remotely, or if he can pack his bags for Europe.

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