Vidal Arroyo, a first-generation student from Orange County, has been named Chapman University’s first Rhodes Scholar, earning one of the most prestigious fellowships in the world.

As late as his junior year of high school, Arroyo wasn’t considering higher education. But high school friends were busy taking SATs, so he did, too. He aced them, and in May will become the first in his family to graduate from college.

During his first year at Chapman, Arroyo enrolled in a molecular biology class, where his focus and determination caught the attention of Melissa Rowland-Goldsmith, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology. She suggested he should consider research, and Arroyo began learning about her work on pancreatic cancer.

But Arroyo was also intrigued by the work of Jake Liang, Ph.D., a School of Communication professor who researched humanrobot interactions, so he joined that lab team. Then heartbreak struck: Liang was diagnosed with cancer and died at age 37. Arroyo then felt called to the only path that now made sense – cancer research.

“My parents have always raised me with the idea of duende, which in Spanish means passion or soul. It’s the idea of pursuing something because you’re passionate about it,” he says. “Before Professor Liang’s diagnosis, I didn’t really have that connection with cancer. Seeing him die of that disease so young was just really shocking to me. It felt almost like a social responsibility. I decided I’d use whatever talents I have to change this for others.”

In October, that journey will continue at Oxford University, where Arroyo will complete graduate work and study the applications of data science to improve colorectal cancer treatments.

“The professors believed in me more than I did, and that’s been incredible,” he says. “It’s really a testament to the amazing environment here and the ability for someone to see potential in someone else.”