William Plummer
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Amy Battles Jensen remembers the first time she saw the boy who was to be her younger brother. It was August 1983 and Amy, then 10 years old, had traveled to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport with her parents, who were adopting their fourth child. He was Korean, like Amy, and 4 years old—but he was also blind. “He only knew how to speak Korean,” she recalls. “The movie E.T. was popular [at the time], and we taught him to say, ‘E.T. phone home.’ He kept saying it all the way home.”

Soon Zachary Battles (formerly Jung Nam Lee) will be phoning home to State College, Pa., from England. Now 21, he’s one of just 32 American college students—out of 950 U.S. applicants—to win a coveted Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. “You wonder if it actually happened,” says Battles of his victory. “I looked at the criteria”—moral character, leadership, physical fitness and academic ability—”and thought I didn’t have what it takes.”

Few who know him would agree. Battles has a perfect 4.0 average at Penn State and will graduate in May with three bachelor’s degrees—in math, computer science and French. An evangelical Christian, he has spent vacations teaching English to Bosnian refugees, toiling in a soup kitchen and working with disabled people in Ukraine and Costa Rica. “Zachary is a walking advertisement for determination,” says Mary Gage, former director of undergraduate fellowships at Penn State. “He has achieved his success against such enormous odds.”

Placed in an orphanage by his middle-class parents (like many disabled children in South Korea at the time), Zachary was still waiting to be adopted four years later, when Richard and Barbara Battles, a music teacher and a homemaker, heard about him from an agency. The deeply religious couple—biological parents to Becky, 32, Chris, 30, and Matthew, 19—have adopted 15 kids in all, most of them disabled, from three countries. “We felt it was our life ministry,” says Barbara, 53.

From the start the Battleses sensed that Zachary was special. Despite his handicap, he learned English quickly. He climbed trees and jumped off the porch with the other kids. And he was endlessly curious. One day, says Barbara, “he was standing on the furniture and happened to feel the wall and then a picture. He wanted to know what it was. He was amazed that things went on a wall. He was interested in everything.”

With the help of a computer equipped with Braille software and a voice synthesizer, Zachary earned a stream of A’s at State College High School. One year he won an award for reading more books than any other blind child in the country. “Zachary was one of the joys of my career,” says chemistry instructor Marguerite Ciolkosz, who was amazed by his ability to tell the temperature of a Bunsen burner flame by listening to the sound it made. He learned the trumpet and became a star of the chess team. “[The first time] I played him,” recalls coach Robert Nixon, “it took him four moves to put me away.”

In 1997 Zachary applied to advanced math programs at several top-ranked colleges—and got into none. The disappointment, he says, merely deepened his religious faith. Determined “to do more things that would bring me closer to God,” he enrolled at Penn State and became active in a campus Christian group. Zachary is less keen to get closer to his birth parents, who wrote him for the first time when he turned 18. He insists that he feels no resentment—they gave him up, he says, so that he could “go to a country with opportunity”—but prefers not to belabor the past. Last June he did send a letter asking after a blind sister also placed in an orphanage, but he’s still waiting for a reply.

Battles is eagerly looking forward to Oxford, where he will study numerical analysis. And he plans to continue his international aid missions. “It’s a responsibility on my part,” he says. “A Rhodes Scholarship is not just academics—it’s also leadership. But I would do it regardless of whether I was a Rhodes Scholar or not.”

William Plummer

Matt Birkbeck in State College

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