This year’s class of Rhodes scholars reflect a broad range of interests and goals, but the urgency of global migration patterns and crises is clear: at least four of the 32 scholars in the class of 2020 are actively building their futures as legal advocates for immigrants and refugees.
Rhodes scholars are granted a full scholarship to graduate studies at Oxford University alongside recipients from all around the world. The scholarships are awarded to university students who exemplify a commitment to public service, academic excellence, and strong leadership qualities.
Making history, Hera Jay Brown is the first transgender woman to be named a Rhodes scholar. Having graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville this past year with a self-designed interdisciplinary major in socio-cultural anthropology and migration studies, Brown will be pursuing a doctoral degree in migration studies with her scholarship. “Hera Jay has spent her academic and professional career researching important, and sometimes difficult, topics,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman to the university paper. “She wants to make a difference in the world by informing international policy and decision making.” Brown has already accumulated some LGBTQ policy-building experience with work for the Biden Foundation.
Brown’s goal, ultimately, is to become a lawyer who represents asylum seekers. “Studying at Oxford will be an incredible opportunity and platform to collaborate with many of the world’s best scholars working to advance the rights of and protections for refugees around the globe,” Brown told the paper. “Through the Rhodes I have a real chance here to bolster partnerships I’ve built with refugee communities in the United States and abroad.”
Laura Plata, who graduated this year from Yale with a degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, is also working toward a future in migration. She will be going to Oxford to pursue masters degrees in Comparative Social Policy as well as Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Compelled to action after hearing from her relatives about their living conditions in El Salvador, Plata spent much of her time on campus as an advocate for migrants’ rights, according to Yale News. She’s currently working in Mexico City, collecting research on migrant kidnappings and Mexican deportees.
Focusing on migration policies’ effects on human trafficking, Ohio State senior Henry Wu majored in philosophy and political science. As an undergrad, Wu co-founded Enlighten, an anti-trafficking non-profit organization designed to engage with the issue at local and regional levels.
The son of Chinese immigrants, migration policy is something that resonates deeply with Wu. “I am extremely fortunate that I was not forcibly separated from my parents when we immigrated to the United States,” he told the university paper. “I now understand how restrictive immigration policies can put migrants at greater risk of exploitation and trafficking in the United States… [And] I will fight for a world where the dignity of the most vulnerable is protected just as my own.” At Oxford, he will be pursuing master’s degrees in migration studies and evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation; upon returning to the states, he plans to attend law school in order to work in international migration policy.
A third-generation Greek immigrant and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in political science, Stephen G. Damianos plans to work as a human rights attorney following his time at Oxford. Initially inspired by the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, he currently is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge in development studies; at Oxford, he will pursue a doctorate in migration studies. “Part of what I want to do with my Rhodes Scholarship and my future in the field is to really humanize this, to remind others that these are our neighbors, and that these are humans,” Damianos told the Boston Globe over the weekend, adding, “What would happen if the tables were turned, and we were suddenly forced out of the comforts of our lives? Who would we hope would help us then?