Grant Rigney

Grant Rigney, a 2015 graduate of Tullahoma High School and a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was recently named a Rhodes Scholar, becoming only the eighth Tennessee Vol to earn the distinction. As a Rhodes Scholar, Rigney, will receive an all-expenses-paid education at the University of Oxford in England, where he will spend two years studying to earn two master’s degrees.

A Tullahoma High School graduate has joined the ranks of the top echelon of academics after being named one of 32 Rhodes Scholars for the United States in 2019.

Normandy native Grant Rigney, a 2015 THS graduate, was selected as the eighth-ever Rhodes Scholar from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Rigney is currently a senior at UT majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Rigney called the distinction “an honor,” saying there were “so many deserving and respectable candidates,” the Rhodes Trust could have selected.

Any of them, he said, “could have been selected and been equally as successful, so I’m very honored and humbled to have been selected.”

“Grant is uncommonly talented – in research, policy, music, and on and on – but more than that, he possesses an indefatigable commitment to do good in the world,” said Andrew Seidler, director of UT’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, which facilitates nomination of UT candidates for the Rhodes and other nationally competitive awards. “He is such a special person and an outstanding representative of UT.”

Being named a Rhodes Scholar means Rigney will receive an all-expenses-paid education at the University of Oxford in England next fall. Rigney will spend two years in England studying for two different master’s degrees: one in global health science and epidemiology and another in evidence-based social intervention and policy intervention.


Rigorous application process

Rhodes Scholars are chosen in a two-stage process. First, applicants must be endorsed by their college or university. Applicants without the institution endorsement are not eligible, said Rigney.

“Your university has to nominate you before the Rhodes [Trust] will even look at your application,” he said.

After interviewing with UT faculty and refining his application, Rigney said he sent in all the necessary paperwork involved with the application and waited about four weeks before he heard back from the Rhodes Trust.

This year more than 2,500 students sought their respective institutions’ endorsement; 880 were endorsed by 281 different colleges and universities.

Once the application is turned in, selection committees in each of the 16 U.S. districts invite the strongest applicants to an interview. Applicants are chosen on the criteria of academic excellence, character and leadership, and must “be conscious of inequities” in the world.

Rigney traveled to Chicago earlier this month for the interview portion of the process. At the end of the day, the judges announced that he was one of the two winners from District 12, which encompasses Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

Two winners from each of the 16 U.S. districts are named as the U.S. Rhodes Scholars each year, meaning Rigney was one of 32 students to be named a Rhodes Scholar this year out of more than 2,500 applications.


Studying in Oxford

According to Rigney, many Rhodes Scholars enter into a two- or three-year program and pursue master’s degrees or doctorates, but he’s taking a different approach.

“I proposed a two-year program and getting two one-year master degrees, so they would be successive,” Rigney said.

The degrees he’ll be attaining while across the pond are health- and science-related and will be applicable to Rigney’s future plans for a career in health care.

Rigney has plans to become a surgeon in a “safety net” hospital but he also wants to do medical research. His global health science and epidemiology and evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation degrees will help him more in the research area of his career, he said, but learning more about diseases and researching public health might also make him a better surgeon.

“I want to be a surgeon and public researcher at a public safety net hospital, so my goal is to be able to use global health and epidemiology and the evidence-based social intervention and policy to conduct public health research,” he said.

By working in a safety net hospital, Rigney will be able to help those who would normally be overlooked by the health care system – particularly those who are elderly, poor or uninsured.


A lasting impression

Rigney has long been interested in health care helping those less fortunate.

When he was younger, he and his mother encountered a man in the area who needed to use a safety net hospital due to a lack of health insurance, and it changed how he looked at the health care system.

“It just kind of motivated me to want to pursue working in an environment with people who really needed health care the most,” Rigney said. “He was somebody who didn’t seek out health care, and people didn’t seek him out, either, because he didn’t have any family, and no one really knew about him.

“So when he did get health care, it was because something just absolutely needed to happen.”

The relationship he formed with the man also changed how he viewed his own world view.

“It just introduced me to a whole group of people who struggle getting health care, and oftentimes they’re the ones in the most critical care and need the most immediate attention,” he said.

With that experience in mind, Rigney began discovering the medical field, shadowing physicians and receiving his certified nursing assistant (CNA) license.

He received his CNA license after graduating high school, he said, which allowed him to have more direct contact with patients, rather than the limited experience he could get as a physician shadower.

Once he enrolled at UT, Rigney continued working with those less fortunate and expanding his experience in the health care world.

“Once I got to UT, I started looking for opportunities to get involved with clinical work that served more marginalized populations, so I started volunteering at a clinic that served the uninsured in Knoxville,” he said.

Rigney also co-founded a student organization that seeks to raise awareness of homelessness in Knoxville.

He then pursued a governmental internship at the House of Representatives in order to learn more about health care policy and safety net hospital policy.


Other accolades and opportunities

Rigney’s Oxford education will not be the only time he’s spent abroad. He also spent some time studying at the University of Edinburgh, researching “the ethics of resource allocation in health care.”

“I kind of compared the way the UK’s health care system does that and the way the United States’ health care system does that,” he said.

By studying how different health care systems fund their operations, he said, he was able to learn “the value of providing beneficent health care to people who are uninsured.”

Rigney also has a number of other accolades on his resume. He is a Neyland Scholar; a member of the Haslam Scholars Program; editor in chief of Pursuit, UT’s journal of undergraduate research and is a member of the UT Alumni Board of Directors as well as the president of the Student Alumni Associates.

He volunteers at Inskip Elementary School and the Fifth Avenue Clinic in Knoxville, is a licensed private pilot, a triathlete and an accomplished musician who plays the fiddle and mandolin.

Rigney played for years in his family’s bluegrass band, winning state and national championships and performing more than 400 concerts across the country and abroad.

Erin McCullough may be reached at