New York City
March 2003

Rhodes Scholar “Sees” The World
by M.C. Cohen

Cyrus Habib is in elite company. As one of the 32 recipients of this year’s Rhodes Scholarship, Habib is an accomplished senior comparative literature and Mideast studies major at Columbia University. Yet, he’s far from an elitist. Whether lobbying for the rights of students with disabilities at Columbia, where he is president of the campus group “Columbians Organized for Disability Advocacy,” or rallying at a peace demonstration in New York, Habib sees the world as a place bigger then himself. “Education can’t exist in a vacuum,” he says. “We must always remember to fight the world’s fight.”

Habib’s accomplishments and interests are as varied as the causes he believes in. He has designed a computer program that converts text applications to speech using the Linux operating system, he studies martial arts, is a downhill skier, and is a published photographer. Being a well-rounded Rhodes Scholar is certainly not a rarity, but accomplishing all of this while being totally blind, certainly is. At the age of 9, Cyrus was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye. He was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, and his retinas were removed to excise the tumors.

Habib was born in Maryland but moved to Bellevue, Washington after his ninth birthday. He attended public school from the sixth grade through the time he graduated as a high school senior. What was it like for Cyrus at a regular high school? “I always felt although the ADA (American Disabilities Act) was written at the time, and I was attending a top school district, we were still fighting for equal accommodations. It was always an uphill battle.”

Cyrus remains very close with his parents, speaking to them daily from their home in Washington. “My parents were very influential,” he says. “They both in their own way held a high standard for me, but had me think independently. There wasn’t a closed kind of household where there were these expectations. They just kind of encouraged me, and allowed me to push myself. Anything that I was interested in they would make available to me, no matter what. They would spend their time waiting for me when I did martial arts and when I got piano lessons. My dad took me skiing and my mom studied French with me. They were the ones who really encouraged me.”

Being named a Rhodes Scholar is the just beginning of the journey for Habib. After he earns his doctorate degree in European literature at Oxford University in England as part of the scholarship, Cyrus is all set to attend Harvard Law School as a Truman Scholar. “I believe that the way that we encounter literature deeply influences our appreciation of the law,” he says. “Issues that arise in poetry and in novels, such as, human rights and gender equality are still being played out in the legal sense.”

Still, it won’t be easy for Cyrus to leave Columbia. He is a well-known figure around campus, having been written up numerous times in the school newspaper, as well as the New York Times. “I run into a lot of people; I’ve never met anybody as charismatic and clearly brilliant as Cyrus,” says Travis Tatko, president of the Golden Key International Honor Society at Columbia and a friend of Cyrus’s. He’s one of the most articulate guys I’ve met here at Columbia.

“You go into a local bar or Nacho Mamas and you get 5 or 6 pretty women looking at him. It’s not only that, but he makes everybody around him feel comfortable. Although he’s very goal oriented, he knows how to enjoy life. He works hard and he plays hard.

For Cyrus, all of this just seems to be a way to be a positive influence for others with disabilities. “The ability to be an advocate,” he says, “ is to allow those who maybe think that mediocrity is their best hope something more to hope for or achieve. It [my accomplishments] does show that we can embrace things that society told us we can’t do.” #

City: State:

Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email:
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2003.