Former Rhodes Scholar returning to visit his alma mater, Greenville Tech

MARCH 7, 2011

Former Rhodes Scholar returning to visit his alma mater, Greenville Tech

In some ways, it's a fairly typical story. A young man wanted a college education but didn't have any money, so he got a job and enrolled in classes at Greenville Technical College. But most everything else about Daniel Dreisbachs story is pretty atypical.

Dreisbach, the son of medical missionaries, was born in Nigeria and spent most of his childhood in various parts of Africa, typically remote areas affected by war or natural disaster.  The last place I lived before I came back to finish high school was in the far north of Niger, which is in the heart of the Sahara Desert. There was a severe drought going on in that part of the world, he said. It was a challenge for my parents as to how to educate their children because we often lived in extremely remote parts of Africa.

For a while, Dreisbach took correspondence courses through an extension program of the University of Nebraska, a program initially geared toward remote, farm-based students. For his final year of high school, though, he attended Bob Jones Academy, living in a dormitory.

Greenville had served as a home base for his parents on the occasions that they returned to the United States, and his father practiced medicine here during their stays, so it was a familiar place.  After high school, Dreisbach spent a year back in Africa working with his family and traveling, before returning again to Greenville.  I came back, and I knew that I wanted to go on to college. Didnt have any money, he said with a laugh.

So he found a job, working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift as an orderly at Greenville Memorial Hospital, and enrolled in classes at Greenville Tech.  It was affordable. I was paying my bills each semester as they came along. Quite frankly, I think it would have been very difficult for me to have afforded college otherwise, he said.

Going to school year-round, Dreisbach earned his associates degree in the spring of 1980.  He headed immediately to the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg (now USC Upstate) to work toward his bachelors, and he turned his eye to the future and the possibility of post-graduate studies.

Working and going to school full time had left him little time for extracurricular activities, he said, so he started looking for scholarships or grants that might finance his further education and give him a little more free time.  I very literally sat down in the library and was going through one of these grant books that lays out a lot of scholarships, and the Rhodes Scholarship just was one of them, he said. I think I was probably a little too nave to appreciate how unrealistic that was.

Unrealistic or not, Dreisbach thought it was worth a shot and brought the idea to one of his Greenville Tech professors, Keller Freeman. He said in retrospect hes surprised she didnt laugh.  She could have very easily dismissed the possibility, but she didnt. Im sure she appreciated how unlikely it would be that I would get this scholarship, but she encouraged me nonetheless, he said.

Freeman, though, was not as skeptical as he thought.  Here was a serious young man with a vision that was considerably larger than the Palmetto State, said Freeman, a now-retired professor who taught philosophy and history at Tech during Dreisbachs time there.  Anyone who knew Daniel knew that he was capable of anything that he set his mind to, she said.

As a member of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee for the state, Freeman had seen many an applicant come and go. She knew what qualities made a good one.  I felt that Daniel was definitely Rhodes Scholarship material, she said. He was already a citizen of the world by the time we got him at Greenville Tech.

Dreisbach was eventually chosen as one of two applicants from South Carolina in 1981 and went on to the regional selection process in Atlanta, where he was named one of the 32 American Rhodes Scholars for that year.  He remains the only Rhodes Scholar in USC Upstates history.  Was Freeman surprised when he won the scholarship? No, not a bit, she said.

After spending four years at Oxford earning his Ph.D., Dreisbach returned to the States and earned a law degree at the University of Virginia.  He came once more to South Carolina to spend a year clerking for U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert F. Chapman in Columbia.  A few years later he took a teaching position at American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and has remained there since, becoming a renowned scholar, lecturer and writer on topics related to church-state relations.

Despite the soaring academic success hes achieved, Dreisbach said it was his humble beginnings at Greenville Tech that set him on his path.  Im enormously grateful to Greenville Tech and what it did for me and what it allowed me to accomplish, he said. It provided a very solid foundation for the career path and academics that I have pursued.

Dreisbach is returning to Greenville Tech this week to speak to classes at his alma mater, his first time back in those hallways in about two decades.  Hell offer a public lecture on religious liberty in American history at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in the J. Verne Smith Library/Technical Resource Center. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Originally posted March 7, 2011 on Written by Amy Clarke.