Not that long ago, Stephani Bryson's big goals were life-guarding, the breast stroke and surfing. But now the Georgetown University graduate student and will be named Sunday as a Rhodes Scholar, alumni of which include Edwin Hubble of telescope fame and President Bill Clinton.
Now at Georgetown University as a master's candidate in German and European Studies, Bryson will finish her first of two years and take an academic leave in the fall for her Rhodes Scholar study at the storied Oxford University in England, a college that she thinks resembles Hogwarts from "Harry Potter."
"I think my parents are a little flabbergasted," Bryson, 23, said Monday by phone from the family's home in San Diego's Carmel Valley. She bursts into a full-bodied laugh. "I ditched so much high school and they thought I was going to drop out and be a professional surfer ... I thought that I would be living in Hawaii, surfing every day and listening to a lot of Jack Johnson, and hanging out with a lot of other surfers."
Instead, Bryson figured out quick that professional surfing is not the vortex of gender equity.
"For girls it's almost impossible to make a living pro surfing," said the woman who prefers to be called Steffi. "There are sponsorships, but for girls they mostly give you stuff, but not actual money. It's not really how well you surf, but how cute you are."
Hers is still an unlikely path from the idyllic SoCal childhood of chlorine, sunscreen and salt water to tweedy academic finishing school for world leaders. The Torrey Pines High School graduate was announced Sunday as among only 32 Americans chosen out of some 800-plus applicants. Canada has the second most chosen, at 11.
As the youngest daughter of a Berlin-born mother (an English professor) and an American-born father (a retired social psychologist) -- both at San Diego State University -- Bryson says that she figured she would try college. But she wanted to get far enough away from her parents' stomping grounds to not be spied on by fellow professors, offering progress reports.
"Yes, because we knew everybody at the entire university, and they were all our best friends," her father said dryly.
She may have been drenched in water sports but her family background gave her a world view that would color her choices. Bryson was raised to speak only German with her mother and only English with her father. So she was bilingual until she rebelled in grade school. Facing college choices, she said that she went with schools that had good overall reputations. And she knew that she wanted to re-learn German, which was her original minor at Long Beach State.
"I really didn't know what else I would do, but I started taking classes that interested me, and it was just good luck that I was in a Geography 100 class with a guy who was also in my German class," said Bryson. "And he told me about international studies. I thought, 'Wow. I could major in the world.' "
She lived in the college dorm her first year, moved into an apartment at Fifth and Obispo in Belmont Heights in her second year, then spent the next year living and studying in Berlin. She also lived in Brussels during an internship, then returned during her final year to live near Junipero and Fourth Street, where she did most of her hanging out at the Art Theatre and the wine bar next door. "Although I do love my beer," she added.
During her year in Berlin, Bryson studied at the Humboldt University and participated in a U.S.-German forum for young leaders; she also served as an American cultural ambassador to the U.S. Embassy.
Bryson also lived in Belgium during an internship, from September through December 2010, for the U.S. State Department. as assistant to the special assistant to Ambassador William Kennard. Her internship was part of the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels, where she also was a volunteer with the Wounded Warriors Project, teaching water sports to veterans to help them readjust to civilian life.
By then she was double majoring in German and international studies, and had built strong relationships with Cal State Long Beach professors. Her father thinks that this was a key factor, because with academics for parents, she viewed professors as approachable and human.
"On a big campus -- it's easy to get lost in it," he said. "Stephanie, I think, made it a small school experience." Two of her professors, in particular, were big influences: political science professor Larry Martinez and director of the honors program Nela Hempel-Lamer. Bryson was the valedictorian of her class at her May 2011 graduation.
It's clear in only a brief conversation that Bryson is the classic case of an intelligent woman who is also very attractive -- sunbleached blonde with a winning smile -- and sometimes underestimated as a result. She is something of a hybrid in archetypes, recognizes it and shrugs it off anyway, which is also part of her charm. She doesn't seem to take herself so seriously.
"When I went in for the Rhodes interview, I was the only one from a state school," she said. "Everyone else was from Stanford, Yale, MIT. I could only speak about my own experience, but the advice I got from a lot of people was to be myself."
She also cites the ability to recover from a misstep as perhaps a factor, if not key to her success -- something she just read about in a The New York Times article titled 'The Need to Fail.'
"That was something I got some experience with. Even though my parents thought I was throwing my life away to be a professional surfer, they let me do that and figure out on my own -- this epiphany that it was no future," Bryson explained.
"I don't think anyone watches their child grow up thinking they'll become a Rhodes Scholar," said father Jeff Bryson, a professor emeritus who did research into jealousy and prejudice. "Stephanie wasn't thinking of bulding up her resume in the seventh grade. I think, very much, Stephanie represents the kind of person the Rhodes Scholar started looking out for: a student who is well rounded with an interest in athletics."
She will be back at her Alma Mater Tuesday night for the Cal State Long Beach basketball game, as guest of the college president, and then spend the remainder of the holiday week with her family, which includes her mother, Liane, who is still teaching rhetoric at San Diego State. (She has an older brother and sister, too).
She gives hope to all the parents and students who show up at state college unsure of their future, their major or even what they want to do with it -- if they can afford it. ("Tuition went up 200 percent from the time I started to when I graduated," she notes).
"I spent seven years life-guarding, and I think it taught me discipline and service," Bryson said. "So hopefully I can inspire others to think about something that they think is beyond their reach."
After she finishes her time as a Rhodes Scholar, she returns for her last year at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.. Then she hopes to work as an adviser in European relations. There are former Rhodes Scholars working for the Obama administration.
"If a future president was to appoint me Secretary of State, I would be more than happy to accept that," she added, laughing.