Monica Marks grew up among fundamentalist Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eastern Kentucky — craving books and learning in a community where education wasn’t valued.
Today the University of Louisville graduate is the state's latest Rhodes scholar, the winner of one of the most coveted awards in academia.
“Growing up, the discussion wasn’t about what college you would go to, it was whether or not you were even going to college,” she said. “The idea of going to university and getting a degree, much less getting a Rhodes, didn’t even fall within our purview.”
At 23 years of age, her studies in Islamic law have already taken her around the globe to places like Jordan, Tanzania and Tunisia. She’s now studying in Turkey during her year as a Fulbright Scholar — the prestigious academic award she won last year.
It’s far from her youth in Rush, Ky., where she went on sales calls with her father Jesse, who owns a small business that sells plastic bags and other janitorial products. She helped him on “floor jobs,” what they called the cleaning jobs he did on weekends to make extra money.
Neither of her parents graduated from high school, and no one in her extended family went to college.
As a child she begged her parents to send her outside of her own school district — to Russell Independent Middle and High schools — because they were the best schools in the area. And she said she constantly asked her parents for books to feed her voracious appetite for reading.
Marks credits her father with letting her stray from church teachings to make a better life for herself.
Jesse Marks was an elder in the local Jehovah’s Witness church — a church she said focused on preparing for the apocalypse.
“They believed that college was unnecessary and you were derided for pursuing college,” she said.
Many saw college as “a prideful waste of time” and a means to acquire the material goods that the church frowned upon, she said.
“I was an insatiable reader and my parents got me books,” she said. “I read all the things I wasn’t supposed to read about — philosophy, feminism … I realized at an early age that I didn’t just want to read about things, that I would have to explore bigger things and that education was part and parcel to that.”
She learned she won the scholarship Saturday, after an interview in Indianapolis along with other finalists from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
“They lined up the 10 finalists — almost like a beauty pageant — and announced who won,” she said.
She’ll spend the next two years at Oxford University, in England, studying for a master’s of philosophy degree in modern Middle Eastern culture.
She tried to call her father first after learning she won, but he had turned his phone off. So she called Patricia Condon, her mentor at U of L.
When she finally reached her father, she said Jesse Marks had to put down the phone for a second.
“He came back on and said, “You won a Rhodes Scholarship?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe it either.’”
Marks’ two years at Oxford will follow a career at U of L that has made her one of the school’s most decorated scholars.
University of Louisville Jim Ramsey called her “a superstar at U of L” and said the school is “very proud of her and we just congratulate her.”
He said Marks’ Rhodes Scholarship “is a reaffirmation of our ability to recruit the best students from across Kentucky … and a reaffirmation of the quality of our undergraduate programs.”
Marks came to U of L through its Hallmark Scholars Program that gave her full tuition and room and board.
She attended the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania in 2006-07 with the support of a National Security Education Program scholarship. And she won a Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department in 2007 for a summer immersion program in beginning Arabic at the Centre d'études Maghrebines in Tunisia.
In 2008, she participated in a summer Arabic course at the Qasid Institute for classical and modern standard Arabic in Jordan. She has also studied Latin and Kiswahili, and taught herself Turkish.
After her Fulbright scholarship year, Marks said she had planned to finish her master's degree in Islamic law at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. She’ll now forego that to take part in the Rhodes program. Her scholarship to the University of London will go to another U of L student.
She plans to eventually attend law school, where she will continue to focus on Islamic law.
Her current studies concentrate on comparative human rights law as it relates to Islam.
Marks traces her interest in Islamic law to growing up in a fundamentalist religious community in eastern Kentucky.
She said her upbringing “made me sensitive to religious fundamentalism. When you start reading Islamic legal texts, you’ll see that it uses the same sort of language as the Bible and the Talmud. … Fundamentalist Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a lot in common.”
Marks won’t be in Kentucky long, On Monday she flies back to Turkey to continue her studies there.
GOOD FOR HER!