West Pointer is among 2021 Rhodes Scholars

Cadet Tyrese Bender has been described as a kid who is ‘solid as a granite.’ Photo: Patriotleague.org

West Point Cadet Tyrese Bender was recently named one of 32 U.S. Rhodes Scholarship awardees, possibly the first Filipino American to receive the prestigious honor.

He hopes to earn a Master of Science in Sociology and Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation from Oxford University. Beyond that, he will belong to an exclusive league of the ‘best and brightest’ that includes former President Bill Clinton, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and journalist Rachel Maddow.

Tyrese, who excelled in athletics as well as academics, spoke to The FilAm about his biracial identity and how it has given him a “unique” perspective as he explores different cultures and meets different people.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, to a Filipina mother and an African-American father, his parents divorced when he was a little boy. Both his parents have served in the U.S. Army where they met. He and his elder sister, Moriah, were primarily raised by their mother Maria. Their father, Tyron Bender, was present as they were growing up.

“My half-Filipino identity is something I wear with a sense of pride,” he said in an email interview. “Though being a mixed-race child often meant that I was quite different from everyone else, I learned to draw strength from this difference. My half-Black and half-Filipino identity has invigorated my understanding that where we come from and how we view ourselves are both fundamental aspects that guide who we are.”

With his mother Maria Bender and elder sister Moriah.

Tyrese is an engineering management major at the military academy. He is a two-year track team captain and contributor to the inaugural U.S Corps of Cadets Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy. 

“He is one of those kids that is as solid as the granite that forms the foundation of much of this institution,” said Army Director of cross country and track & field Mike Smith in the Patriot League website. 

He said his mother raised him and his sister “guided by her strength, discipline, and direction.” Maria Bender  traveled to the U.S. when she was 16.

“My mother tells me that not only is her home country a lot warmer during the winters, but that the Philippines is a truly fantastic place filled with beautiful islands, people, culture, and of course, food,” he said.

Maria garnered support from her extended family to look after her children while she worked.  “My Lola played a huge role in filling my diet with my favorite Filipino dishes, to include Sinigang, Lumpia, Tocino, Giniling, and Adobo.”

She joined the Army and left with the rank of corporal before Tyrese was born. She juggled two jobs when the kids were in school, and later settled on a career as a project manager for a financial consulting firm.

“Her eight years of service (in the Army) existed as an example of leadership, selfless service, and strength that proved to me that I, too, could use my life for the betterment of others,” he said.

Stellar athlete                             

His father, who was born and raised in a small town in Louisville, Mississippi, was “able to be a part of our upbringing.”

“I inherited much of my athletic drive and appreciation for sports from my father, who was a stellar athlete in his younger days, while my sister inherited most of the musical talent in the Bender family,” he said.

Bender and Evan Walker are the two Rhodes Scholars from the military academy.

He said his parents raised him guided by the principles of respect and hard work.

“My mother taught me at a young age that, to truly impart a vision into the world, I needed to listen, understand, and respect different perspectives. And when the world and the people in it fought back, working hard and appealing to the better angels of our nature would always help inspire others, making our struggles matter.”

His mother, he told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, “really ingrained in me this idea that if you want something you have to go get it.” When asked for her reaction to the scholarship, he beamed, “She couldn’t stop crying.”

Being biracial has helped him realize that family, understanding, inclusion, and other values transcend the supposed barriers that exist among cultures.

“Though we look different, eat different foods, and practice different customs, my upbringing as a half-Black and half-Filipino individual helped show me that if we choose to listen, understand, and respect one another, that these differences can come together, imbuing all of us with a newfound sense of strength,” he said.

Sonny Busa, a retired diplomat with the U.S. State Department who also served in the U.S. Army, said Tyrese “represents the best of Filipino Americans.”

“The scholarship recognizes not only high academic achievement, but physical prowess, combined with outstanding leadership skills in the furtherance of community welfare,” said Busa, a graduate of the West Point Class of 1976.  “Tyrese as the second of command of the West Point Corps of Cadets, over 4,000 strong, exemplifies leadership in a school considered to be the top leadership school in the world.”

“Of course,” he pointed out, “there should not be any doubt that his character is a direct result of being raised by a strong Filipina single Mom.” “Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead,” says a statement from West Point.

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© The FilAm 2020

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