By Published: March 1, 2019

Serene BhangraMeet CU's first Rhodes Scholar in a quarter century. She's got her sights set on a U.S. Supreme Court seat— and a Miss America title.

Serene Singh had been a Rhodes Scholar for less than 48 hours last November when she boarded a flight for Southern California. She had a contest to get to, National American Miss, the nation’s biggest youth beauty pageant.

Rhodes Scholars are rare enough — Singh, a CU Boulder senior, is one of 32 from the U.S. in the latest crop and CU’s first winner in 25 years. Rhodes Scholars also aiming to be Miss America were perhaps unheard of until now.

But Singh (Jour, PolSci’19), a bhangra-dancing, snowboarding Boettcher Scholar from Colorado Springs with a 3.98 GPA, isn’t shy about the diversity of her ambitions, or much else, for that matter.

“There’s no class in confidence,” she recently told a Denver audience of about 750 CU alumni and friends while dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit — you have it, or you build it.

The former Miss Colorado Teen and America’s Junior Miss said pageant competition has helped her cultivate presence, poise and a sense of her “own unique beauty.”

To pageant skeptics (she once was one), Singh says she skips bathing suit contests. But she doesn’t scoff at contestants who find confidence through them: “I say to those women, I think they should do it shamelessly. I applaud them for being bold.”

Serene Singh poses for a picture outside of the UMCAt 22, Singh has done a lot.

A champion debater, member of CU’s Presidents Leadership Class and chief justice of CU’s student government, she’s also a classic activator: She founded CU’s Sikh Student Association, the National Sikh Youth Program and the Serenity Project, a nonprofit group devoted to empowering marginalized women.

There’s no class in confidence, said Singh — you have it, or you build it.

Last spring, mere months before she became CU’s first woman Rhodes Scholar, she won a Truman Scholarship, which provides $30,000 awards for young people invested in public service and access to an alumni network rivaling the Rhodes’.

Last summer, after spending part of it as an Obama Foundation intern in Washington, she returned to campus and resumed the presidency of both CU’s Sikh Student Association and the political science honors society — all while leading the Colorado Bhangra Team, a competitive Punjabi dance squad. CU Boulder’s team, part of the statewide team, numbers about 30, she said, mostly non-Indians.

Singh, who grew up in a Sikh family, was also preparing to undertake an honors thesis about public perception of Sikhs in the U.S., tackling two majors and stopping nearly every dog she saw for a pet and a selfie.

“I’ve got about 400 now,” she said, presumably including her own chihuahua, Betta (“child,” in Hindi).

After commencement in May, the Rhodes Scholarship will take her to England for all-expenses-paid graduate study at the University of Oxford. There she’ll follow in the footsteps of many prominent Americans, including Rhodes alumni Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White (Econ’38).

In all, 20 CU Boulder alumni have won the Rhodes since it was established in 1902. Before Singh, the last CU Buff Rhodes Scholar was Jim Hansen (Engr’92; MAeroEngr’93), in 1993. The former CU football captain later earned an Oxford Ph.D. Today he is superintendent of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Marine Meteorology Division.

Worldwide, there were 100 new Rhodes Scholars in 2018. Of the U.S. contingent, 21 were women, the most ever. Besides Singh, CU Boulder’s Nikki van den Heever (CivEngr’17; MEngr’19) made the final round.

Serene Singh in the classroom
At Oxford, Singh plans to study public policy, criminology and criminal justice, preparation for law school in the United States. Her long-term ambition, she said, is a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“People often hold themselves back through their own fear or self-doubt,” said Ross Taylor of CU’s College of Media, Communications and Information, who has taught Singh in several courses. “Serene may have doubt, but she overcomes it and is fearless.”

“There’s no dull at all in bhangra,” Singh said, noting it means ‘intoxicated with joy.’ “I think life should be lived like that, too.”

Before Singh leaves for the U.K., she’s got half a semester to enjoy at CU still, plus a running list of off-campus projects and adventures in mind.

She’ll wrap up the thesis, finalize plans for life overseas and convene with her Truman Scholar class in Washington. She wants to skydive, visit Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, see the world’s biggest collection of keys, stage a fashion show for the Serenity Project and leave the National Sikh Youth Program in trusted hands.

If it seems like Singh rarely rests, you’re onto something.

“I could do a much better job,” she said.

So, she dances whenever she gets a chance, even if it’s just a few steps on the way to class — ballet, hip-hop, bhangra.

It energizes her.

“There’s no dull at all in bhangra,” she said, noting it means ‘intoxicated with joy.’ “I think life should be lived like that, too.”

In our print edition, this story appears under the title "Oxford Bound."
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Photos by Glenn Asakawa (Journ'86). To view more outtakes of our cover, click here.