University of South Dakota Fulbright Josh Arens

Josh Arens is shown in a University of South Dakota in September 2014 after he had spent four weeks studying global climate change at Exeter University in the United Kingdom on a Fulbright Summer Institute scholarship. The Yankton, South Dakota, native recently was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which is given to 32 U.S. students each year to study at the prestigious University of Oxford.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal file

VERMILLION, S.D. | Some college students just know what career they want to pursue when they set foot on campus, and choosing a major is the first step in preparing for that career.

Josh Arens wasn't so sure when he enrolled at the University of South Dakota. He was good in chemistry in high school, he said, so he'd major in that and see where it led. If he didn't like it, he could always switch to something else.

"It wasn't with this trajectory in mind," Arens said of the choice he made more than four years ago.

That trajectory is sky high now.

On Nov. 18, Arens, who received his undergraduate chemistry degree earlier this year, was named a Rhodes Scholar, the 10th USD student to ever to receive the prestigious honor, awarded to 32 American students each year. Past winners include former President Bill Clinton, astronomer Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named, and dozens of other famous politicians, scientists and artists.

In October, Arens is off to the United Kingdom and the University of Oxford for a two-year course of study that will result in a master's degree in environmental change and management.

As he spoke by telephone four days after learning he'd been chosen, the honor was still sinking in.

"I'm not really sure what to make of it yet. I'm still wondering if they chose the right one," said Arens, who grew up on a farm near Yankton, South Dakota.

Just a guess, but when a field of 866 applicants is narrowed down to 32 -- two students from each of 16 regions of the United States -- the selection panel made the right choice.

Arens' resume already was filled with impressive educational achievements: A Fulbright Summer Institute Award in which he studied at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom in 2014. An internship this summer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Science Undergraduate Laboratory at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. And since June, he's been at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia in Parragona, Spain, as part of a Fulbright Open Study Research Award, a program that lasts through June.

Arens is interested in renewable energy and environmental policy. In his current research in Spain, he's working on artificial photosynthesis, turning sunlight into hydrogen rather than sugar like plants do. He spends hours working in a lab. He's not sure yet if he wants to focus on laboratory research or work as a policy adviser, someone who would help governments develop responses to climate change.

"I'm hoping to figure that out by doing this program in Oxford," he said.

At Oxford, he'll spend less time in the lab and study the science of climate change, how humans interact with the environment and policy-related topics. It will give him a chance to see how his past lab work applies to everyday life.

"When you're in the lab doing all this stuff, sometimes you lose sight of the bigger picture," said Arens, who will turn 23 this month.

Studying for two years at Oxford is unlikely to be a breeze, but Arens said it will be a welcome breather before he begins to pursue a chemistry Ph.D., a course of study that will take five or six years.

He pictures himself someday involved in study or research into renewable energy. Growing up on a farm raising corn, soybeans, alfalfa and cattle, he's keenly aware of the importance of protecting the environment.

In the meantime, the student with the public school background said he looks forward to interacting with people of different backgrounds at Oxford, known as one of the world's most prestigious universities. He hopes it might inspire other South Dakota kids to aim high.

"I hope it also can send a message to other students that we're just as capable and qualified as students from Yale and Harvard," Arens said.

As for himself, Arens isn't daunted by the honor of living up to the reputation of being a Rhodes Scholar, at least not yet.

"I just hope I can use it well and take advantage of the opportunity to do some good in the future," he said.

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