Joe Riley was sure he wouldn't be named a Rhodes Scholar.
"There's no way I'm getting this," he told his parents, Craig and Becky Riley of Etowah, Tenn., after a dinner with the fellow finalists last week.
But it happened.
Riley, a senior at the University of Virginia, is among 32 U.S. students -- and only two from the Tennessee/Alabama/Florida district -- chosen as Rhodes Scholars this year.
At college, Riley's major is Mandarin Chinese and he's in foreign affairs and government honors program. He is also a battalion commander in UVA's Army ROTC program.
He plans to continue his studies of foreign affairs, and hopes to earn a doctorate through the Rhodes Scholarship. Riley's focus will be to bring what he's learned about foreign relations to the U.S. Army. He will go on active duty in the infantry after he completes his degree at Oxford University in England.
"It's so important for someone who's invested in national security to be involved in foreign affairs," he said. "How do we shape our actions in a way that helps facilitate peace?"
Riley said he fell into the ROTC program by accident.
After spending some time traveling with U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, Riley was impressed by the veterans and soldiers he encountered, and knew he wanted to be a part of that community.
It was in the ROTC program that Lt. Col. Tim Leroux, now retired, first encouraged Riley to pursue the Rhodes Scholarship.
"I've met tens of thousands of young people, and Joe is instantly recognizable as someone special," Leroux said. "He's got a real knack for pursuing excellence and achieving excellence."
Established in 1902 and named after Cecil B. Rhodes, the Rhodes Scholarship allows international students to attend Oxford for postgraduate studies. It is considered the most prestigious scholarship in the world.
Riley also was awarded the Truman scholarship for public service and the Marshall scholarship, which encourages ties between the U.S. and Great Britain.
He is writing a book with UVA professor Dale Copeland that will examine the future of Sino-American relations, and he designed and taught a class on ethics in modern warfare at the university.
Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is a friend of Riley's family and said it's not surprising Riley was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship.
"He's always been a young man who has been highly motivated to pursue an academic career and he's always been a great leader," Bell said. "I'm very happy and proud for him. I think McMinn County and all of Southeast Tennessee should be proud we have a young man who has been named a Rhodes Scholar."
Leroux said that though he was able to point Riley in the right direction, Riley did all the work.
"It's a real American dream," Leroux said. "A kid from a small town in Tennessee accomplishing this."