February 14, 2011

Lewis & Clark congratulates a Rhodes Scholar

Tamma Carleton BA ’09, a gifted scholar-athlete, is one of only 32 people in the United States to be named a Rhodes Scholar for 2011.

Tamma Carleton BA ’09, a gifted scholar-athlete, is one of only 32 people in the United States to be named a Rhodes Scholar for 2011.

By Ellisa Valo | Photography by Paul Fetters

It takes far more than good grades to be considered for a Rhodes Scholarship. In addition to high academic achievement, winners are chosen on the basis of their integrity, character, spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor. In one defining race with the Lewis & Clark track team, Tamma Carleton clearly displayed the depth and breadth of character that distinguished her as Rhodes Scholar material.

It was her final race as a senior at the conference championship. The day before, she had competed in the 10K—and won by 30 seconds. “After the 10K,” recalls coach Keith Woodard, “she volunteered to run the 5K, a very tough double, to earn points for the team.” The 5K would determine whether Lewis & Clark would pull ahead of Puget Sound, its archrival of the past four years.

Few realized that just making it to the meet at all had been a victory for Tamma. In the fall, a stress fracture had sidelined her from the regional championships. During that time, her father was diagnosed with cancer, and as his illness progressed into the spring, she decided to quit running competitively to spend more time with him. When he died later that spring, Tamma found that running and being with her teammates was one of the few things that consoled her. As the team eyed the spring conference championship, she wanted to support their efforts, and though still mourning her father’s death, she decided to return to competition.

At the sound of the starting gun, Tamma made her way out of the pack. Exhausted from the previous day’s exertion, and feeling the strain of the intense but far-too-brief training schedule that had led up to this moment, she nevertheless set an aggressive pace and gave it all she had left. Says Woodard, “She just gutted it out,” placing just high enough for Lewis & Clark to beat its rival.

“Tamma excelled at everything she did at Lewis & Clark,” says Woodard, “and in so doing, she motivated her teammates and her classmates to strive for the same high standards that she set for herself.” High standards, indeed: Tamma is one of only 32 people in the United States and 82 worldwide to be named a Rhodes Scholar for 2011.

Thinking Like an Economist

Coming from the small, rural town of Elk, California, population 250, Tamma felt she should go to a big college. Lewis & Clark wasn’t even on her radar, but a recruitment letter promoting the school’s cross country and track programs persuaded the young runner to visit. “I had already checked out several large schools,” she says, “but as soon as I sat in on a class at Lewis & Clark, I knew: this is how I want to learn.”

Tamma enrolled at Lewis & Clark intending to study international affairs, but in her very first economics class, a second epiphany struck: “I suddenly realized, this is how I think,” she recalls. “Everything just clicked.”

Her quick grasp of economics concepts made an immediate impression on Cliff Bekar, associate professor of economics. “As a first-year student in Econ 100, Tamma started handing in assignments that were so perfect, I felt like I was learning from her,” says Bekar. “She ended up being the first and only student who received a perfect grade on everything she submitted in the class. Her answers were so good, I started using them as answer keys—they were that much better than mine.”

Bekar began to push her to consider economics as her major, but he didn’t have to push hard—Tamma was already sold. “I had always liked math,” she explains, “but with economics, I could take my math skills and apply them to the world.”

Bekar wasn’t the only professor to take note of Tamma’s quick facility for economics. Martin Hart-Landsberg, professor of economics, enlisted Tamma’s help as a research assistant on an international trade project he’d long wanted to tackle. “To underscore the confidence I had in Tamma, she was only the third student in my 35-year teaching career that I asked to help me with professional research,” he says. “Her work was incredibly detailed and clear and enabled me to make major strides. A paper drawing on her research has now been published.

Tamma twice served as a research assistant to Bekar, as well. In their second project, she and Bekar worked together to turn aspects of her senior thesis—a sophisticated analysis of tenant-landlord share rates in agricultural sharecropping contracts—into a paper for submission to an academic journal. When Tamma presented the paper at the 2010 Western Economic Association Conference, says Bekar, “Professional economists in the room were completely surprised to learn that she was not already in a PhD program. One even marveled that she did not have an academic job yet.”

By the time she graduated from Lewis & Clark, Tamma had amassed many academic honors, including membership in the Pamplin Society (the Lewis & Clark honor society that emulates the purpose and standards of the Rhodes program) and Phi Beta Kappa.

A Leader in Athletics

Tamma’s academic achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that she spent three hours of every day running with the Lewis & Clark cross country and track teams. Even while making time for a semester abroad in Chile, she finished college as a three-time Academic All-American in cross country, and led her team to Academic All- American team honors all four years in both cross country and track. When she graduated in 2009, she was the only athlete from the Northwest Conference to receive the highly competitive NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship.

Applied Economics

“One of the things that has consistently impressed me about Tamma is her strong sense of who she is and what is important to her,” says Bekar. “Only after carefully convincing herself that a professional economist can have the kind of positive influence on the world that she wants to make did she decide to pursue graduate studies.”

Bekar encouraged her to go directly to graduate school after graduating from Lewis & Clark, but Tamma was eager to start applying her knowledge in the workplace. The opportunity presented itself when another of her professors pointed her toward a job opening at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. “I really wanted to see how my research could effect change in the world,” says Tamma, “and this was a place where I’d be directly implementing policy.”

In her job as an economic analyst in the Bureau of Economics at the FTC, Tamma works with teams of PhD economists and attorneys to investigate mergers and acquisitions for possible antitrust violations. “We’re given huge amounts of data and extremely complex problems that we have to figure out on our own, so my Lewis & Clark liberal arts education has been essential,” says Tamma. “The ability to look at the big picture, come up with relevant questions, and figure out a process for arriving at a conclusion—that didn’t come from a specific econ or math class; it came from this type of education that encourages students to think critically and to analyze problems on our own.”

Outside of her work at the FTC, Tamma is active in local food movement issues. Coming from Oregon, where farmers’ markets flourish in every neighborhood, she was struck by the number of urban areas around D.C. that offered no access to affordable, local, sustainably produced food. Now, thanks to her efforts, one more D.C. neighborhood does. Devoting hundreds of hours of her own time to research, fund-raising, and community organizing, Tamma helped start the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, a thriving farmers’ market located in a low-income neighborhood. Through a program she helped develop, the market doubles the value of food stamps and WIC checks to make fresh produce affordable for all of its local residents.

Small Town, Big World

“In all of my own research and projects, I’ve always gravitated toward issues of food production, poverty, and the environment,” says Tamma, “but I never really thought about why. It wasn’t until I sat down to write my essay for the Rhodes Scholarship that I really stepped back to think about it, and I think it all comes down to the way I was raised.”

There were no grocery stores anywhere near the rural town where she grew up, about four hours north of San Francisco. She and her family gardened, foraged, hunted, and bartered with neighbors for food. “Food defined our connection to each other, to our community, and to our environment,” she says. “We interacted with and appreciated our natural environment because our survival depended on it.”

As isolated as they were geographically, however, Tamma’s parents were well connected to the world through their work as weavers with an organization called Aid to Artisans. Tamma’s father traveled often to Peru, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, where he helped indigenous weavers incorporate modern techniques to make their rugs more marketable on a global scale. The photos, stories, and colorful crafts that he carried back from his travels brought the world into the Carletons’ home. On a few occasions, visitors came home with him, too, and told their own stories of how he had transformed their lives.

In recent years, Tamma has begun to weave together the lessons from her upbringing, her education, and her observations into something that looks like a road map for her future. “I think that developing countries are going to be a big focus of my future research, because they are the big players in terms of global food production,” she says. “I have come to the realization that agriculture lies at the nexus of environment and poverty. If we can better align economic and environmental incentives in agriculture, I think we can both alleviate poverty and mitigate the environmental harm that we’re seeing today. That’s my ultimate goal.”

As to where she hopes to be, physically, to work on this goal—well, there’s no place like home. “I hope to land in an environment like Lewis & Clark,” she says. “I was inspired by so many of my professors who were able to teach, and to be very prominent researchers and academics, yet still be very publicly engaged in how their research plays out in the real world. To me, that’s the ideal combination.”

The Road to the Rhodes

Given her many accomplishments, what may be most surprising about Tamma’s winning the Rhodes Scholarship was her own surprise at winning it. “I was absolutely shocked,” says Tamma. In fact, the thought never even occurred to her to apply—it was suggested to her by Karen Gross, an assistant professor of English, who had never had Tamma in a class. Such was Tamma’s reputation among the Lewis & Clark faculty. Gross encouraged and supported her throughout the months-long process of applications, essays, and interviews. “There’s no way it would have happened without her,” says Tamma.

The scholarship, valued at up to $50,000 a year, will cover Tamma’s tuition and expenses at the University of Oxford. There Tamma will continue her formal economics training while gaining a broader perspective in environmental change, an issue that has become increasingly important to her.

She plans to pursue two master’s degrees at the university: one in environmental change and management, and another in economics for development. “The first year will broaden my knowledge about the essential issues in climate change, and how to manage them with economic policy and laws,” she says. “The second master’s program is similar to a first-year economics PhD program, but focused on development.”

With a Rhodes Scholarship and two master’s degrees from Oxford, she plans to return to the United States to complete a PhD in economics. After that, she hopes to turn her attention to some of the most pressing issues facing the developing world. And the world will surely open its doors.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Lewis & Clark Chronicle magazine.

Freelance writer Ellisa Valo first wrote about Tamma Carleton in the summer 2007 issue of the Lewis & Clark Chronicle.