Abigail Ward, a Pasadena, Maryland, resident and the United States Naval Academy's most recent Rhodes scholar, first became interested in the power of digital information at the end of high school.
She saw how the medium could help internationally adopted children, like her, from across the world find a sense of community online. It could also divide friends and neighbors, as she observed in the social media frenzy spurred by the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
"I think that the division that was existing in our society was reflected on our social media," the 21-year-old said. "That really inspired me to study how we can use technology to strengthen our communities."
Not only is Ward passionate about the spread of information and how disinformation can sow mistrust, she also has the knowledge and skills to put her ideas into motion. That's what her professor, Cmdr. Michael Flynn, who helped her prepare for the application process, believes helped separate Ward from the more than 2,500 total applicants and the 862 applicants who went on to be endorsed by their colleges and universities. Ultimately, 32 Americans were selected last weekend for the Rhodes scholarship next year.
The program fully covers the cost of education and living expenses for graduate programs at Oxford University, in England. Ward will spend two years at the university pursuing back-to-back master's degrees: one in the social science of the internet and one in public policy. She's especially interested in disinformation originating in China, her birthplace.
"Her background proves that she can do what she says she wants to do," Flynn said, pointing to her study of the Chinese languages and culture -- she considers herself conversationally fluent in Mandarin -- as well as computer science. "She's perfectly situated to contribute in this particular area that is very destabilizing for our national security, which is disinformation. Elections turn on it."
Ward spent last summer working with The Asia Foundation -- Malaysia through the Stamps Scholarship, studying the impact of technology on smaller-scale entrepreneurs.
She's also a member of the Navy Women's Rugby team.
Her coach, Murphy McCarthy, described her as "one of those who really crushes it in the classroom and sets a great example for the rest of the team that academics are important. It was always obvious that this kid was going places."
Ward's former team captain, Sarah Skinner, won a Rhodes scholarship in 2021 and is now studying at Oxford. Skinner's achievements have been an inspiration to Ward, she said.
The Naval Academy has had more than 50 Rhodes scholars in its history and is tied with The University of Chicago for the institution with the tenth highest number of scholarship recipients, according to the Rhodes Trust. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are the top three. It has the second-highest number of recipients of the military academies with the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, having more than 100 and the United States Air Force Academy having more than 40.
She attributes much of her academic success to mentors she's had throughout her upbringing in Anne Arundel County. Ward was adopted when she was 10 months old from China and has been a "Pasadenian," as she calls herself, since. She graduated from Northeast Senior High School in 2020 and before that attended Old Mill Middle School South, where she first became interested in the science of technology in the STEM program run by Marie Hartman.
"I felt by going through that [STEM] program that I could do anything I put my mind to, and I think a lot of it comes from Mrs. Hartman and her inspiration and her encouragement," Ward said. "I think her desire for all of us to dream big massively influenced where I am today."
Hartman wasn't at all surprised to see Ward achieving top honors.
"She always had a smile on her face no matter what obstacles were in her way. ... She was a risk-taker too; she would always try something," Hartman said. "The fact that she has such a commitment to our country and defending the right things in the world is huge and that's what we want coming out of these programs."
Though she spent almost her entire life only a few miles from the Naval Academy, she didn't have any family connections to it or to the military. She decided to pursue the military track when her friend suggested they participate together in the Marine Corps Junior ROTC program at Northeast.
"I came to the Naval Academy because I knew I wanted to do something bigger than myself and to use my career to serve others," Ward said. "I think that greatly aligns with the Rhodes mission and pillars that essentially asks moral leaders of character to step up and to hopefully contribute and improve society."
Ward said she's thrilled for the adventure she's soon to undertake, including her first trip to the United Kingdom.
"I'm excited," she said. "I love to travel, and I love new experiences and new food and new places and new people."
Once she graduates from Oxford, Ward will serve in the Navy as an information warfare officer.
Capital reporter Bill Wagner contributed to this article.
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