Algebra. Language Arts. P.E. Earth Science. All of these high school courses open young minds and teach important lessons. For other students, that is.
As a high schooler, Steffi Bryson wanted none of the above. She didn’t care about solving binomial equations when the surf was topping out at 6-8 feet. Frustrated and bored by the required classes in high school, Bryson dreamed of a life of sand, sunscreen and surfboards. Therefore, she skipped classes when conditions were favorable off the San Diego coast, which was often.
So were the arguments with her parents.
“It got to the point of me being constantly grounded for misbehaving, and it finally was, ‘Fine, I’ll just get my own apartment,” Bryson recalled. “I told my parents I would just take the GED and surf for a living.”
A vagabond life as a professional surfer was not what Bryson’s parents, both professors at San Diego State University, had in mind for their only daughter. So, they sat her down and explained how the real world operates – and how much it costs.
“My parents eventually sat me down and said, “OK, this is what an apartment costs. This is how much life costs and what it takes to be an adult. And you will have to do all of that because we are not going to pay for it,’” she said.
It was a defining moment for the semi-rebellious teen. She went from near-high school dropout to Long Beach State valedictorian to Rhodes Scholar over the next six years, and now is the Senior Public Policy Associate for Uber.
“I’m certainly never bored,” Bryson, 26, said about her work with the app-based car service. “Uber is a company that stands to fundamentally change the way we move about cities, and that’s an amazing opportunity. Worthwhile endeavors are rarely easy.”
Bryson’s interest in how the world moves forward stems from her days at Long Beach State, which helped propel her into the hallowed halls of Oxford. She is the second Cal State graduate student to receive the honor, proving that not all Rhodes Scholars come from elite institutions.
“I don’t know if a place like that (USC or UCLA) would have brought me to this place of curiosity and sort of confidence in myself as well,” Bryson said. “I think there was something special about Long Beach State.
“I needed a place like Long Beach, where everything was so interdisciplinary and the really impressive part was that the professors that I had weren’t focused on their research or their brand or symbols.”
At Long Beach State, Bryson discovered a whole world of choices. She could pick what she wanted to study, the courses she wanted to learn and how many classes she wanted to try, which turned out to be many.
With the mentoring of two key professors, Bryson earned a double major in German and international studies and minor in political science, graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average. She was the valedictorian of her 2011 class and went to Georgetown for her master’s.
“Above all else, Long Beach was the place that taught me to appreciate the value of learning,” she said. “… It’s a place that fosters and promotes a quality of teaching that is rare.”
Bryson had decided on attending Georgetown when her father, Jeff Bryson, a professor emeritus of psychology, suggested she apply for the Rhodes Scholar position, which entailed writing a short biography.
“I said, ‘Oh man, there’s no way,’” the younger Bryson said. “Look at these people who have been elected. They’ve saved babies from burning buildings. There’s no way I’m like this.’”
Turns out, she didn’t need to save the world, although she did work as a lifeguard for the city of Del Mar. While at Long Beach State, Bryson was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, president of the Model United Nations Intercollegiate Team and moderator of a German Consulate-sponsored Panel.
She served as an intern in the U.S. State Department’s office in Brussels, Belgium, and spent three months in the European Parliament’s Liaison Office with the U.S. Congress in Washington. She logged another three months in the Cabinet of Parliament President Martin Schultz.
“I realized then I had a chance,” she said. “I wanted to go to grad school anyway, so I thought maybe I should pursue this super prestigious scholarship to do that.”
Bryson was in a semi-state of shock when the committee called her name after two days of interviews. Her heart was beating so hard, she missed hearing her last name. She didn’t miss her chance of a lifetime, an opportunity to study at one of the oldest and most esteemed universities in the world.
“It was unbelievable,” Bryson said of Oxford. “It’s Hogwarts. It’s exactly like you would imagine. It’s magical. It’s very traditional. You’re eating meals in these dark paneled rooms, drinking whiskey and doing very strange traditional things like speaking Latin at graduation. It’s a total universe change from Long Beach (State).”