After graduating from Bowdoin College in May, William Oppenheim III spent his days in the wilderness, a month at a time, leading outdoor leadership courses.
It was just before leaving on a lengthy expedition in the mountains of Washington State that the New Canaan man sent in his application for a Rhodes Scholarship, something he had been thinking about for a couple years.
It was not until he emerged 50 days later -- “with all students still alive, which is good,” he joked -- that he saw the e-mail. He made it to the next round.
That was on Nov. 8 and he was due in New York 12 days later for a rigorous weekend of interviews.
The competition was fierce. The committee was narrowing down the original 800 students to only 32. But over the weekend, Oppenheim says, he felt pretty comfortable.
“I just felt like I could be 100 percent honest and myself,” he said.
After all, he was spending two days talking about something he has been doing for five years – his online network that links volunteers with grassroots educational projects across the world.
Oppenheim founded Omprakash Foundation, an online database of volunteer opportunities that, unlike many others, is completely free and education-driven. He is not selling volunteer trips, he is connecting volunteers and donors with opportunities.
“There are all these companies where you will pay them $5,000 and they will sell you this trip,” he said. “This passion has just grown from my interest in education around the world.”
So far, there are more than 100 educational partners in 26 counties. For instance, his foundation connected a journalism club at a private school in California with a journalism program at a girls’ school in Kenya.
On Saturday, Oppenheim learned he is one of the final 32 American students chosen for the esteemed honor, and only Connecticut resident.
He’s honest about the fact that he was humbled, honored and excited but not overwhelmed with shock.
“It didn’t feel like winning the lottery,” he said. “It felt more we like when you work hard for something and you get it.”
And work hard he has. He graduated magna cum laude and has done research on the intersections of religion, education and politics in India, Brazil and South Africa.
Then there are the expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School that he has led since graduation.
Oppenheim’s next step is to study comparative and international education at Oxford University, and use what he learns to continue running the Omprakash Foundation, to help grassroots organizations around the word to represent themselves on the Internet.
His organization, he said, channels funds to partners and acts as a tax shelter for donors and the participants.
They also provide grants so international volunteering is not just for the elite.
He has raised $250,000 to $300,000, so far.
“Only some goes to volunteers. Most goes to partners,” he said.
People can earmark money to partners.
“If you write a check, we transfer 100 percent of that money to Peru. We don’t skim any money off the top,” he said. All that comes out of the donation is what it costs to execute the transfer. Oppenheim is not paid. He has a job that pays him, he said. He’s not doing this for the money.
“Our core mission is not to give away X amount of money per year, but to keep the Web site going,” he said.
The site was down on Monday morning, but Oppenheim expected it to be back up by the end of the day.
Two other students with Connecticut ties have been chosen. Russell Perkins, of Evanston, Illinois, attends Wesleyan University.
Perkins graduated with high honors from Wesleyan University in May and founded the Center for Prison Education, which offers Wesleyan courses in prison and provides research and volunteer activities for Wesleyan students.
He also teaches a small discussion class in philosophy at the Cheshire prison. Russell plans to study philosophy at Oxford.
Matthew Baum, of Watertown, Massachusetts, graduated from Yale University in May with a major in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. He is currently studying neuroscience at Trinity College, Ireland, as a Mitchell Scholar and has done research on Fragile-X syndrome at Yale, and on bipolar disorder at Trinity College.
When he was not in the classroom, he was running the Yale wresting program, playing on the Yale rugby team and coordinating a Yale community service program.
He intends to do a doctorate in neuroethics at Oxford.