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Annapolis

An oil spill in California leads a Naval Academy midshipman to Oxford to study sustainable energy as a Rhodes scholar

Midshipman 1st Class Benjamin Kwong, 21, of Newport Beach, California will continue is education at Oxford University in England next year as United States Naval Academy’s 55th Rhodes scholar.

Last October, a major oil spill was detected in Southern California that originated from a ruptured underwater pipe a few miles offshore near Long Beach.

According to news reports, 3,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean after a container ship anchor severed the pipe, killing fish and wildlife and creating an oil slick that covered thousands of acres of water. Beaches up and down the coast were closed, including Newport Beach, where Midshipman 1st Class Benjamin Kwong, then a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy, grew up.

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“As I saw pictures from my family of the beach that I loved it saddened me,” Kwong said last week. “Nobody was surfing, the water was black and dead fish were on the beach.”

In the wake of the disaster, Kwong, 21, started researching sustainable energy and learning more about global warming. He decided this was going to be an issue he wanted to help solve. As a result of his work, Kwong was selected this month as the academy’s 55th Rhodes scholar. He will continue his education at Oxford University in England next year after he graduates.

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Kwong, a cyber operations major, will pursue a master’s degree in sustainable energy policy with hopes of researching ways a transition to renewable energy might bolster U.S. national security. Rhodes scholarships provide up to three years of study. Kwong was one of 32 recipients among 840 applicants from 244 schools. Early in his academy career, Kwong had ambitions to be an aviator, something he still hopes to pursue after he completes his degree at Oxford.

“This is an amazing opportunity, Kwong said. " I’m excited and motivated to make the most of it and not just rely on the prestige that comes with just being a Rhodes scholar.”

Kwong is perfectly suited to represent the Naval Academy as a Rhodes scholar, said Capt. Zac Blanchard, one of Kwong’s mentors and the coordinator of the Stamps Scholar Program.

Kwong and Blanchard first met through Stamps Scholars , a program founded in 2006 by E. Roe Stamps and his late wife Penny to offer scholarships to outstanding undergraduate students. The program allowed Kwong to attend Cambridge Security Institute this summer where he studied the impact of China’s reliance on fossil fuels on the conflict in the South China Sea. Kwong also studied at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland in March 2022, where he completed a capstone project that proposed retrofitting abandoned oil wells in Texas to create geothermal energy systems at one-tenth the cost of the drilling process.

“A huge component of the Naval Academy’s mission is preparing leaders for the highest levels of command, service and government,” Blanchard said. “And specifically we are preparing the most intelligent, highest energy, public-oriented midshipmen for that.

“Ben possesses all those qualities. Everyone that gets an opportunity like this will be first in line to receive the largest financial compensation going forward but we aren’t looking for grads looking to boost their resumes. We are looking for those motivated and dedicated to change.”

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While the oil spill propelled Kwong to seek new academic endeavors, his motivation to make a difference in the world dates to his days as a student at Newport Harbor High School, when he chose to commit to the Naval Academy. Commander Michael Flynn, a professor at the academy and a 28-year veteran, said Kwong has been pushing for change even before he arrived in Annapolis.

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“When Ben was in high school he wrote an open letter to his community in Newport Beach due to some anti-Semitic symbols that were going around on social media,” Flynn said. “[It] just points to the kind of guy he is and has always been.”

Kwong is the 9th Company operations officer, the Navy Surf Club vice president, a member of the Navy club volleyball team and a volunteer with the Midshipman Action Group Mids4Kids program.

Kwong is grateful for the opportunities the Naval Academy has offered him and said there is no other college that would have fit him as well.

“The academy has surrounded me with like-minded individuals who want to work hard and go get it,” Kwong said. “As an extroverted person, I feed off the energy around me and I’m not sure if anywhere could have suited me better.”

As he prepares to graduate in May and embark on the next chapter of his life in England, he looks back on his time as a midshipman with great reverence.

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“The most I’ve learned so far has not been in the classroom,” Kwong said. “It was the intellectual discussions with mentors and drinks with friends. In those moments I didn’t always see them as more than trivial but as I look back I think it’s what’s prepared me the most for going forward.”

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