Rhodes Scholar Women Engineers “Fight the World’s Fight” on Their Own Terms

Rhodes scholars are urged to “fight the world’s fight.” At the turn of the last century, this meant protecting the interests of European colonial powers. Today’s cohort of diverse scholars, including women engineers, interprets their mission very differently.
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Recipients of the Rhodes scholarship, the world’s oldest and most prestigious international graduate-level scholarship, have changed dramatically since its inception in 1902, when the scholarship was established at the University of Oxford by the will of Cecil Rhodes. Interpreting Rhodes’ will in light of current values of inclusion and diversity, the Rhodes Trust’s first criteria for applicants remains academic excellence, but just as important is the requirement that scholarship recipients “… be committed to make a strong difference for good in the world, be concerned for the welfare of others, and be conscious of inequities.” Winning a Rhodes scholarship is a great honor, but it is also financially meaningful. All educational costs — enrollment, tuition, lab fees, etc. — are paid, as well as the cost of traveling to and from Oxford and living expenses. A Rhodes scholarship makes an individualized graduate education in the company of other scholars at the oldest university in the English-speaking world possible for many who could not otherwise even consider it.

History Becomes Herstory

Cecil Rhodes was the British founder of the De Beers diamond company and prime minister of England’s Cape Colony (modern-day South Africa) from 1890 to 1896. He died in 1902, but his presence is still felt in southern Africa and at Oxford. While the intent of his scholarship bequest was visionary in some ways — the elevation of public service and the creation of an international community of scholars — it was also limited and exclusionary. Rhodes’ will stipulated that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of race …,” but “race” was understood then to mean European nationality, and no Black South African won a Rhodes scholarship until 1991. The 1904 will named only nine beneficiary countries — those of the “English-speaking world.” And despite being urged by advisors to allow women to compete for the scholarship, Rhodes refused. He is considered by many to embody the most destructive aspects of colonialism, and protestors have demanded that statues of him be removed. Others contend the statues should remain — particularly the one standing outside Oxford’s Oriel College — to witness the diversity of the students who now win the scholarship that bears his name.

Female applicants were first eligible to apply in 1976. This was the result of an act of British Parliament, which changed the requirement that Rhodes scholarship recipients exhibit “qualities of manhood.” The first co-ed class of Rhodes scholars included 24 women out of a total of 71 scholars; of these, 13 were American. The class of 2018, which totaled 95, comprised 42 women, 14 of whom were American. The class of 2019 surpassed gender parity: Of a total of 101 scholars, 57 are women, 21 of whom are American.

It’s a Big World, After All

Originally, the number of scholarships, as specified in Rhodes’ will, were awarded to promote unity and diplomatic ties between Britain and other English-speaking countries. The United States, which sends more Rhodes scholars to Oxford University than any other single country, was allocated 32 scholarships. Rhodes trustees now confer more than 100 (the precise number may change from year to year) scholarships, distributed among 68 countries. China, East and West Africa, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Syria, Palestine, Singapore, and the UAR are now Rhodes scholar constituencies.

New in 2019 are two global scholarships, for applicants anywhere in the world who do not live in a Rhodes constituency. The inaugural global scholars — one man and one woman — will arrive in Oxford in the fall of 2019. They are Olga Romanova, a bioengineering student who is of Russian descent but was born and raised in Japan, and Adamseged Abebe, of Ethiopia, who majored in health and societies and nonprofit leadership. The global scholarships, of which there will be more in the future, are part of a general effort by the Rhodes Trust to extend the scholarship to students in more countries.

Science and engineering now on the map

Another change in the makeup of the Rhodes scholars is the increasing number of scientists and engineers, a significant number of whom are women. This change reflects the growing understanding that diverse leadership in science and engineering is just as crucial as in economics and public policy. Among the scholars who arrived at Oxford in the fall of 2018 are women pursuing math and statistics; biology; environmental planning; medicine; and mechanical, industrial, and chemical engineering. The three scholars profiled below arrived at Oxford last fall. Now more than halfway through their second term, they have had time to adjust to their new surroundings and reflect on their academic careers.

Lehlohonolo Moche: Seeing Problems as Opportunities

Rhodes Scholar Women Engineers “Fight the World’s Fight” on Their Own TermsSouth African Lehlohonolo Moche completed a B.Eng. in industrial engineering with distinction at the University of Pretoria in 2016. The next year, she completed a master’s in industrial engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, as a Mandela Rhodes scholar (created to develop African leadership at African universities). She is studying social data science at Oxford. Initially planning to major in civil engineering as an undergraduate, Moche switched to industrial engineering because it offered opportunities to learn about how business and engineering interact. She credits her problem-solving orientation as an engineer with helping her to win two prestigious scholarships. She observed, “I find incredible amounts of joy in going through the process of identifying problems and finding solutions. … I think this perspective has … been beneficial to being selected as a Mandela Rhodes scholar and a Rhodes scholar.”

She is inspired by the words of Ayanda Ntsaluba, MBChB, a physician and South African public health advocate, who has said South Africa provides people with many opportunities for problem-solving, and that this can be a positive. “These words resonate deeply … and describe my purpose,” she said. “As a young African woman, I feel deeply privileged that my country and continent provide me with the opportunity to use my skills, talents, and passions to play a part in changing people’s lives.”

One cultural difference at Oxford that has required some adjustment is being encouraged to speak her mind. Moche observed, “I think I was most surprised and challenged by having the freedom to disagree with the tutor or with a given theory, as long as I made a sound and well-structured argument. It has been challenging, but also fun to be required to think about both sides of an argument and to articulate which side I agree with and why.”

A strong believer in empowerment for women and girls in STEM, Moche founded a Lean in network at the University of Pretoria and mentored female undergraduate engineering students. She concluded, “No matter what environment I am in, I will find a way to support women in STEM. At a grassroots level, I will continue mentoring young women considering or studying in STEM degree programs.”

Nayani Jensen: Exploring Connections Between Art and Engineering

Nayani JensenFrom Nova Scotia, Canada, Nayani Jensen earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Dalhousie University, where she focused on tackling environmental problems. Enrolled in the co-op program, Jensen sought a wide variety of hands-on engineering research projects. “I worked with a company that designed equipment for underwater acoustic detection (endangered whale species monitoring might be an application), and I did coding and fieldwork for a lab that performed mobile greenhouse-gas monitoring around oil fields. Working in different labs and on different design projects was what excited me about mechanical engineering in the first place — being creative and seeing projects through from design to completion.”

Also a novelist and playwright, Jensen decided to study English literature at Oxford. It’s a big change from engineering, she admits, but also a tremendous opportunity. “I think almost everyone has side projects or hobbies they care about. I say, hold onto those things, even when engineering gets busy, because those things enrich your life and enable you to bring something special to the table. This is why I opted to use the Rhodes to study English lit. After doing engineering for five years, I wanted to give myself a chance to develop my writing before returning to research, and I’ve been really glad I made that choice.”

Bridging the gap between art and science is relatively rare, and pursuing both at the level Jensen does is rarer still. She contends she is simply following her interests. “I’ve always had an interest in both the arts and the sciences, and I’ve always felt most fulfilled when I’ve found a way to do both. The two things aren’t as distant as they seem. They feed into each other,” she said. Jensen recently finished a short play about physicists during World War II, an idea that came to her when she took a nuclear engineering elective as an undergraduate. She also plans to write about environmental topics.

Naomi T. Mburu: Seeking Unity Among Scientific Disciplines

Rhodes Scholar Women Engineers “Fight the World’s Fight” on Their Own TermsA chemical engineering major, Naomi T. Mburu is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) first Rhodes scholar. She was a Barry M. Goldwater scholar, interned at Intel, and conducted research at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. As an undergraduate, she did research in particle physics and biomedical devices. Mburu volunteered with the National Society of Black Engineers and at an elementary school in Maryland. She is pursuing a four-year Ph.D. in engineering science at Oxford. Her research focuses on developing a heat transfer system for a nuclear fusion reactor.

Mburu credits her honors college education at UMBC with helping her win a Rhodes scholarship and preparing her to study at Oxford. She said, “UMBC enables its students to make substantial contributions to their field of research and to be teaching assistants as undergraduates. These privileges are usually reserved for graduate students at other institutions. I believe the quantity and depth of my undergraduate research and teaching experiences helped to set me apart during the Rhodes scholarship application process. Now, as a Rhodes scholar, I attribute my unshaken confidence in my ability to succeed at Oxford to my fruitful four years at UMBC.”

Fascinated with the cross-disciplinary nature of scientific advances, Mburu declared, “I believe that science progresses further when people from different backgrounds come together and share ideas openly. However, collaboration is not always facilitated, and jargon can make it quite difficult. I am passionate about breaking down those walls, so I have deliberately challenged myself to engage in all of the areas of science that I find interesting, regardless of whether they align with my degree program or past experience.”

Rhodes Scholar Women Engineers “Fight the World’s Fight” on Their Own TermsMburu was drawn to engineering at Oxford because students are not required to study one subject to the exclusion of others. She explained, “The department operates as one, highly interdisciplinary unit. Students here are free to traverse different engineering disciplines without restrictions and take courses in whatever part of engineering they find interesting. My work here in Oxford focuses on nuclear fusion, but I work in the turbomachinery laboratory, where almost all of the projects focus on improving jet engines. Interestingly, my supervisor, who researches heat transfer in turbine cooling, explained to me that the cooling systems used for a jet engine and a fusion reactor are actually quite similar, which is how he ended up supervising my project. I really enjoy seeing how all of these different aspects of science are intertwined.”

British humor and cuisine have required some adjustment, but Mburu loves exploring the city of Oxford and participating in clubs and societies outside of engineering. A fierce advocate for women and girls in STEM, Mburu has joined an engineering mentorship program and is exploring STEM outreach opportunities in the area. She is interested in how the UK deals with underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM and has joined the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK).

Mburu echoes the observations of Jensen and Moche: The community of Rhodes scholars is a learning environment like no other. “I have never been in such a concentrated group of international, highly motivated students from every discipline under the sun,” she concludes. “Discussions in the Rhodes House are always so eye-opening because I have the opportunity to hear how social, political, and economic concepts are perceived from non-Western perspectives. But we are united by a passion for our fields and a drive to ‘fight the world’s fight.’”