Nov. 24, 2014
When former University of Notre Dame fencer Alex Coccia was in Uganda in the summer of 2011, teaching social studies and fencing to children in an impoverished area of Masaka, there was a celebration at the school after a fencing competition for Coccia's students.
After the feast and dances, one of his students, Betty, presented him with a broom made of twigs and sticks. Woven into the broom handle with thread made from leaves were two names, Alex, and Eva.
Brooms are a symbol of hospitality in Uganda, where the entrances to homes are always kept clean by brooms, to welcome guests. The broom turned out to hold another symbolism for Coccia.
"I was a little confused about why Betty had put Eva on the broom handle and not her name," Coccia said. "I asked one of the teachers, and she said Eva was Betty's little sister. Betty had made that broom as a gift and dedicated it to her little sister.
"For me, that's very much a reflection of an other-oriented attitude," said Coccia, who had just completed his freshman year at Notre Dame when he taught in Uganda. "The other-oriented attitude was present at that school and it was present at Notre Dame--and it was present at other communities that are pushing for inclusion."
Embracing an other-oriented attitude and effectively articulating it as part of a pursuit of an academic journey helped Coccia earn a coveted Rhodes Scholarship. Coccia, who will study comparative social policy for two years, is Notre Dame's 15th Rhodes Scholar and first since 2002.
Coccia is one of 32 Rhodes Scholars this year. More than 1,600 students started the rigorous multi-step Rhodes process. Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded annually since 1902, funding two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England.
"The phrase that is popular for the Rhodes Trust is 'Fighting the World's Fight,'" Coccia said. "They're ultimately looking for the passion and conviction that can help you do that."
Coccia said his four years at Notre Dame taught him to engage deeply and think critically on issues related to social justice.
"I very much pride myself on the fact that Notre Dame's mission statement is about learning as it becomes service to justice, because I think that is the ultimate aim of academics," Coccia said. "It's also the ultimate aim of an opportunity like the Rhodes Scholarship.
"Whether it was through Africana and Peace Studies at Notre Dame, where I learned about relationship building and conflict management and understanding collective power, whether it was through fencing, where I had to understand team dynamics and individual competition, whether it was through my work in Progressive Student Alliance and Student Government, where I was really able to see the passion that students have for pushing for good, both on campus and outside of campus--all of those experiences culminated in a real appreciation of the pursuit of social justice."
Coccia is currently in Washington, D.C., as a Truman-Albright Fellow in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He is working in a research and policy consulting office for the secretary of HHS. The 2014 Notre Dame graduate is playing a key role in projects on domestic violence prevention, climate-change adaptation, enrollment for low-income people in the Affordable Care marketplaces and social inclusion policies.
A member of Notre Dame's 2011 national championship fencing team, Coccia earned three monograms competing on the men's sabre squad. He won four sabre bouts in the NCAA Midwest Regional to help the Irish on their march to that 2011 national title.
"This is absolutely incredible--such an honor for Alex," Notre Dame fencing associate head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said. "His nomination will stand as one of his greatest achievements at Notre Dame. It is similar to winning a gold medal at the Olympics--what Alex has accomplished during his time at Notre Dame stands alongside such great moments in our program as Mariel Zagunis winning her first Olympic gold medal and Gerek Meinhardt being ranked the No. 1 men's foilist in the world last year. We are so proud for him and wish him well in his continued education."
A graduate of St. Charles Preparatory High School (Columbus, Ohio), where he helped lead his team to a state title as a prep sophomore, Coccia is the first former Irish athlete to win a Rhodes Scholarship since Don Sniegowski, a 1957 graduate who played baseball for the Irish and later taught at Notre Dame for 41 years as an English professor.
Coccia, whose father, Peter, graduated from Notre Dame in 1972, said fencing and athletics played a key role in his development as a leader and a scholar.
"Fencing is a really interesting sport, because it is an individual sport, but at the same time, you're competing with a team," Coccia said. "What fencing taught me, along with the work ethic that comes with athletics, is really three things: One, you always have to remember what you came to do, whether it's on the fencing strip or at conditioning. You have to remember why it is that you're there and what your values are that are going to guide you through that process. The second thing is making sure you focus on creating a culture of success and hard work around you. That feeds into the third thing, which is that you create a network of relationships that really helps sustain you. That's certainly what exists within the fencing team and the Notre Dame family.
"Whether it's academic excellence, service and understanding what our obligations to each other are, whether it's athletic excellence, I think the environment at Notre Dame is one where everybody is competing against himself or herself and we each help each other achieve what we want out of the experience," Coccia said. "I think that's a special environment. It's a very nurturing environment, rather than one where you could easily fall behind."
Dr. Deb Rotman, Paul and Maureen Stefanick Faculty Director in the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), congratulated Coccia on his accomplishment.
"Alex did what we hope all students will do as undergraduates at Notre Dame," Rotman said. "He took his learning experience beyond the classroom and took full advantage of all the resources on campus to discern his path, cultivate his gifts and serve as a transformational leader."
Coccia found out that he was named a Rhodes Scholar on , when he went through a lengthy interview process in Indianapolis. Coccia was interviewed at and, in a process that is unique to the Rhodes Trust, the 13 applicants wait together while the panel deliberates. Coccia found out he was named a Rhodes Scholar at later that same day.
"It was a little tense ... actually, it's a lot of stress," Coccia said of the wait. "But it was a good opportunity, because we get to know each other and learn about each other's interests. Ultimately, we waited until the panel came into the room and announced what the results were and who they selected. It was an interesting dynamic because I was in the same position last year, when the panelists came in and announced the two winners that I was ultimately unsuccessful. I was on the other side of the coin last year.
"It's still sinking in," Coccia said of being named a Rhodes Scholar. "I'm very excited. When I go to Oxford in October next fall, I'll be looking to study comparative social policy with a focus on social inclusion as a framework for public policy."
Notre Dame athletics inspires its student-athletes with the five pillars of success that the Fighting Irish live--excellence, education, faith, tradition and community. Alex Coccia's Notre Dame athletic experience helped him build the foundation for a lifetime of impact in the field of social justice and the opportunity to be a Rhodes Scholar.
--by Curt Rallo, special correspondent