Catching Up with Peter Andringa ('16) - TJ's Newest Rhodes Scholar
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology alumni Peter Andringa (’16) recently earned a huge honor as he was named a Rhodes Scholar. He will study in Oxford beginning in the fall of 2021. Andringa graduated from the University of North Carolina this year with degrees in journalism and computer science. He currently works at the Washington Post for its Newsroom Engineering Team. Andringa recently was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on TJ and his future over email. His answers are below.*
*answers are lightly edited for clarity and brevity
First, congratulations on this huge honor! How do you feel TJ helped shape your journey to where it is today in becoming a Rhodes Scholar? Looking back on my time at TJ, I think the greatest benefit was the people: I was so lucky to be surrounded by such incredible classmates and teachers during my four years there. My peers constantly inspired me to ask questions, try new things, and be ambitious enough to grapple with big problems — and my teachers encouraged and enabled that along the way. I think TJ also instilled a love of science and math, but with a focus of how it interacted with the world: some of my fondest memories come from English, History or Government classes where my teachers in the humanities would tailor their curriculum to consider how technology was changing the world and our society around us, both for better and for worse. The types of interdisciplinary analysis that happened in IBET, Humanities and other classes turned out to be themes throughout my academic career since, so I credit TJ’s curriculum for encouraging it. (And, I hope those divisions of the school continue to grow and thrive!) Finally, I think the academic rigor and workload of TJ (as much as I may have complained at the time) truly prepared me well for college classes, which opened up more opportunities for me to be involved in research, extracurriculars, and other work beyond campus.
What are some of the activities you participated in during your time at TJ and what were those experiences like? Much of my time at TJ was focused around entrepreneurship and technology, especially as one of the founders and later directors of HackTJ. I appreciate how HackTJ, Coding Lady Colonials, StartupTJ and similar organizations created space to engage with real-world applications of science and technology, especially by providing a bridge between TJ and the greater DC area community of entrepreneurs, researchers and engineers.
From previous interviews I have read about you, it seems that you are very interested in the integration of technology and political science. What do you believe brought about that interest? I’ve always been interested in the way that technology affects our society — particularly in the way that social media has changed our habits of consuming news, interacting with each other and forming political beliefs. As I mentioned earlier, that was partially due to the integration of sciences and the humanities at TJ, where we more deeply engage with the positive and negative ways that technology is changing the “real” offline world as well.
Since you graduated from North Carolina earlier this year, you have been working at the Washington Post on election coverage. Can you explain a little of what your job entails? I work on the Post’s Newsroom Engineering team, which is charged with finding ways to use technology to build more compelling digital experiences and assist our reporters in uncovering new stories. During election years we’re mainly focused on designing and building our live election-results experience across platforms, but we also work with other large or live-updating datasets (like Covid-19 cases), and build internal tools that help journalists at the Post uncover new stories faster.
What will you be studying in Oxford and how do you hope to use that experience once you return to the States? I’m planning to study Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute, with a focus on digital news and trust online. I’m fascinated by the ways that social media has changed the information ecosystems we live in, and I want to more systematically examine how news organizations best fit into that environment — ultimately so that we can design better websites, apps and storytelling formats that create empathy and trust. (The Reuters Institute for Journalism, a research group at Oxford, also does a ton of interesting work in this space, and just published the first report in their “Trust in News project.”) Ultimately, I hope to return to journalism for most of my career. I’d love to find ways to bridge the academic and practical sides of the field, to take learnings from empirical science and apply them to the way we design the user experience of online news products.
What advice would you have for current TJHSST students? I hope current students can find ways to avoid becoming too entrenched in the (exciting) bubble of math and science, since there’s so much to learn from the humanities, arts, languages and other disciplines as well. I think TJ offers the opportunity to be involved in so many different intersections of fields, and I hope students are able to enjoy those clubs, teachers and peer relationships that broaden their experiences, perhaps beyond their usual comfort zone. (This extends to beyond TJ as well — sometimes students are so invested that it feels like a bubble, and I found lots of value in remaining engaged in other more diverse communities outside of it.)
How about advice you would have for younger students (and their parents) considering applying to TJ in the future? TJ is a wonderful place, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything — but I think it’s also important to remember that it’s not an all-encompassing sign of success or failure in life. Rather than trying to design yourself to fit into the TJ “mold,” I hope prospective students instead feel the freedom to be themselves and pursue the passions they’re excited about. Many of those passions might still lead to TJ, but I hope students attend because TJ fits them, and not because they changed themselves to fit the school.