TAMPA — As a newly selected Rhodes scholar, former Plant High School valedictorian Jim O'Connell will study tuition-free at England's University of Oxford, where he hopes the experience will further a career in service.
What type of service, he's still not sure.
"The goal is to just make the biggest impact," said O'Connell, 23.
Lately he's thought of joining the Navy SEALs, where he could serve the country and gain valuable leadership training. Or maybe, he said, he would like to run for political office.
"I just want to pay it forward for the rest of my life," he said.
O'Connell's selection as one of 32 American students receiving the honor was made Saturday evening.
Winners were chosen by the Rhodes Trust on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.
Beginning next fall, the American scholars — to be joined by several dozen international winners — will study at the esteemed Oxford University, which is thought to be the oldest in the English-speaking world.
The scholarship, with an average value of $50,000 a year, pays graduate or post-graduate tuition and fees to the university for two to three years of study and grants a monthly stipend and airfare.
In the past eight years, at least three such scholars have come from the Tampa Bay area.
O'Connell graduated with honors this year from Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he majored in politics and international affairs and has a yearlong fellowship in the president's office.
At South Tampa's Plant High, he was class valedictorian in 2009, played varsity football and was senior class president.
When the Rhodes Trust notified him of the honor about 5 p. m. Saturday, O'Connell said the news floored him. The first thing he did was call his mom and tell her to sit down.
Kathy O'Connell. who raised him as a single mother, said she always thought he would be a judge because as a child he wandered their Tampa home banging a gavel.
She runs a child day care business from her home and did not seem too astonished at the news.
"Nothing has ever surprised me about him," she said.
At home Sunday, she glowed with pride, carrying out clippings and rattling off awards her son has received over the years: His face once stared over Kennedy Boulevard from a billboard for his work with Best Buddies Florida. He started a group to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in college; was on the honor and ethics council; and was the student representative on Wake Forest's board of trustees.
Also, she mentioned, he writes screenplays.
For all his accomplishments, O'Connell remains humble. He said credit for the scholarship deserves to be spread.
"It takes a ton of work and it's a team effort," he said. "There are so many people who helped me along the way."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.