COLUMBIA, S.C. — The University of South Carolina’s first Rhodes Scholar in 16 years did not plan for the new friends and extracurricular activities typical of college life.

Jory Fleming, 22, has autism, which makes social interaction difficult. “I didn’t really expect to do much of anything,” he said.

He could not have been more wrong.

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Fleming recently won one of academia’s most prestigious awards, the $68,000-a-year Rhodes Scholarship, for students who succeed inside and outside of the classroom. With the help of a service dog named Daisy, the Columbia resident has thrived at USC.

Now, Fleming is preparing for his next adventure, two years studying at Oxford University in England, starting next October.

“I don’t know if it has quite sunk in yet,” said Fleming, a USC senior double majoring in geography and marine science. “I was a bit surprised. … But it really made me reflective of my time at USC and all the people that have helped me get here.”

An icebreaker

Fleming, who was homeschooled before attending USC, is quick to deflect praise — to his mother, advisers, professors, friends and, of course, Daisy.

Plenty of credit goes to the 5-year-old English lab who has given Fleming a chance to grab college by the horns.

Trained and donated to Fleming by the local nonprofit Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, Daisy can alert him when his medical feeding pump — necessary because of a genetic condition — is not working correctly.

She helps him stand or pick things up when he is tired. And she knows to apply pressure to certain pressure points on Fleming’s body when he is stressed.

But Daisy also helps out in social environments. It turns out having an adorable dog always at your side is a great icebreaker.

“I certainly get a lot of attention as a result of having Daisy and have met people I otherwise wouldn’t have,” Fleming said with a laugh.

Batting a thousand

With Daisy at his side, Fleming has bloomed into the prototypical Rhodes Scholar.

Each year, 95 winners from around the world, including 32 from the United States, are chosen for their academic records, leadership skills and public service efforts.

Past winners include former President Bill Clinton, astronomer Edwin Hubble and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos. Fleming is USC’s 10th Rhodes Scholar since the program began in 1904 and its first since 2000.

“They’re looking for this perfect combination of a leader, an academic scholar and a public servant,” said Novella Beskid, director of USC’s Office of Fellowships and Scholars Programs. “It’s hard to bat a thousand in all three of those categories, but Jory does.”

USC professors marvel at Fleming’s mind and work ethic.

He has a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He has been involved in a wide range of research at USC, both with marine science and geography faculty. Last summer, he worked on creating three-dimensional data visualizations of sea level rise during an internship in Charleston with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“He’s thoughtful. He’s a self-starter,” said Jennifer Pournelle, a research associate professor at USC who has researched urban sustainability with Fleming. “He knows what he wants to accomplish.”

He is the only USC student ever to win both the Barry Goldwater and Harry S. Truman scholarships, and was an honorable mention for the Udall Scholarship.

“Just the focus and dedication that Jory has demonstrated through applying and winning all of these awards is beyond any other student I’ve ever worked with,” Beskid said. “But he’s done it in a kind and compassionate, thoughtful way.”

Taking every advantage

Fleming’s freshman-year University 101 class hammered home the importance of getting involved, and the message stuck.

He took some of USC’s quirky courses, including a cooking class taught by USC President Harris Pastides’ wife, Patricia Moore-Pastides. And he got involved early with USC’s fellowships and research offices, setting himself up for down-the-road opportunities.

Fleming attends USC’s sporting events and volunteers with Cocky’s Reading Express, taking trips to elementary schools to read to children.

He also coordinates education outreach for USC’s Students Engaged in Aquatic Sciences organization, teaching kids in schools about marine science.

In addition, Fleming helped form the Cocky’s Canine PAALS group at USC, which raises money and coordinates volunteers to support the nonprofit that donated Daisy.

Professors say he is quick to help other students struggling with difficult programs or concepts.

“It’s just great to watch someone flourish in college and take every advantage their university has to offer,” said Jean Ellis, a USC associate professor who has mentored Fleming. “I have never seen a student completely exhaust every resource an institution has for an undergraduate.”

With Daisy at his side, he has picked up a lot of friends along the way.

“That’s been one of the best parts of my college experience,” Fleming said. “If you told me that four years ago, I would not have believed it.”

Fleming says he now is ready for a new adventure at Oxford, one of the world’s best schools. Though he has never traveled outside of the United States, Fleming is moving to England next year and plans to pursue a master’s degree in geography.

“They say they’re the No. 1 school in the world for geography,” Fleming said. “I’m really excited about that. The school is just huge. They have geographers from every area in the field.”

And Daisy will be right there with him.

© 2016 The State
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