Getting to Know Fordham’s Fifth Gates-Cambridge Winner


Nikolas Oktaba, FCLC ’15, the Fifth Gates- Cambridge Award Winner (Courtesy of Patrick Verel)


As a Jesuit institution, we look for students who have leadership skills, a thirst for knowledge and a need to use the skills and knowledge in a way that will benefit the world. Nikolas Oktaba, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’15, is one of the students that has exemplified those ideals and has become the fifth student in Fordham history to win the prestigious Gates Cambridge Award.

The scholarship is awarded to 95 students a year, 40 in the United States and 55 internationally. It is awarded to students that show leadership skills in their study of choice and hopes to build a global network for them as they complete their degrees at Cambridge. Being awarded such a competitive award, Oktaba explained how he hopes to bridge the scholarship with activism, all while learning more about his subject during his nine-month stay at Cambridge.

The application process was no easy task. To even be considered for the scholarship, one has to apply directly to the department at Cambridge, then be one of the top three applicants in that department. Finally if granted an interview, one has to go meet them in person, or in Oktaba’s case, have a Skype interview. “I applied for top scholarships in both the U.S. and U.K. for my major in classics to get funding for grad school,” he explained. He started working closely with Mary Shelley, the assistant director of the Campion Institute here at Fordham. “Nikolas told me he was committed to the time-consuming process of applying for a prestigious award to help fund graduate school,” Shelley said, and by working with the Campion Institute, Oktaba also won the Beinecke Scholarship his sophomore year, which will be used along with the Gates Cambridge Award.

Oktaba is a Classics major, focusing on gender and sexuality. He is president of Eta Sigma Phi at Fordham, which is the National Honorary Classics Society, and member of Phi Betta Kappa, Alpha Sigma Nu and the Matteo Ricci Society at Fordham. In his sophomore year, Oktaba also became a Diversity Peer Leader with Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) focusing mostly on LGBT+ programs. This spring, he will be holding another panel about the transgender community at Fordham, which is coinciding with the initiative to introduce gender neutral bathrooms at Lincoln Center.

When speaking to Oktaba, you realize how just how passionate and knowledgeable he is about his subject. He’s able to discuss antiquity, Greek and Latin word roots and the application process of getting the Gates Cambridge Award all with the same ferocity. After explaining the origin of the word “athleticism,” he then ends with: “That’s just one of my many interests!” and moves onto the next topic with ease. Oktaba approaches his subject with humor, describing it as “raunchy and fun.” During his sophomore year, he held a lecture series called “Removing the Fig Leaves” at FCLC which discussed classic sex and sexuality in Greek history, which included, as he describes it, “had a wonderful PowerPoint of ancient penises and vaginas, it was quite lovely.”

Oktaba says that the classics department at FCLC gave him the support to go after these scholarships. “The support given to me here has been phenomenal, because we have such a closely knit group I’ve been getting a lot of attention and training,” he said when speaking about those that helped him. Dr. Anne Hoffman, a professor of English at Fordham, says that “Nikolas is a gifted person who has a real contribution to make in the humanities.” She also said that he has the ability to draw connections from the classics to contemporary issues with sexuality, and he is able to connect the two when discussing it with others. This connection is leading Oktaba to think about his future, and which way the scholarship can take him.

Though his time at Cambridge will only last about a year, Oktaba knows that his time will be filled and busy. “The semesters are about one and a half months long with about two months breaks in between them because you need those two month breaks for travel, the struggle right?” It’s not all fun and games while he’s studying. “But we have to write three 4,000 word papers and a 5,000 word dissertation on top of regular philological stuff that gets us classicists excited.” The accelerated program will lead to his advanced degree, which usually takes about two years in the U.S.

Like many college students, Oktaba is still trying to figure out what he wants to do after college. “At the moment I’m very interested in academia, so I can go on to teach about gender and sexuality and these fun questions.” He then later quips about the possibility of getting his doctorate in his subject. “What does that Magic 8 Ball say? ‘Chances are good.’”

At the end of this journey at Cambridge, Oktaba’s main goal is “being a voice, being an activist” in the LBGT+ community. With his leadership skills, drive and passion for the classics, Oktaba should surely be part of the Fordham elite that have gone on to do great things with this scholarship.