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Rhodes Scholar Essay Example 2 - Personal Statement

Provide a short Personal Statement describing your academic and other interests. This statement should describe the specific area of proposed study and your reasons for wishing to study at Oxford

My double major in Government and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) always provokes one of two reactions. Some people, like my uncle, make light of the concept of a man majoring in women’s studies; others, like my grandmother, pull me aside with a worried look and encourage me to try studying something besides gay and lesbian theory. I had always planned to work in human rights advocacy, and my academic choices seemed like good preparation for that field. Still, my uncle’s skepticism nursed a suspicion that I would perpetually be an outsider if I studied issues like feminism, ethnic conflict, racism, or poverty. My grandmother’s concern fostered an equal and opposite conviction that there is something self-serving about fighting for gay and lesbian rights when you have a personal investment in that struggle.

When I arrived at college, I had not begun to grapple with the ethical underpinnings of social justice. I dove into [my university’s] First-Year Urban Program, a week of volunteering which stressed that it can be counterproductive to work on behalf of a group without working with those people themselves. As I listened to a homeless speaker reminisce about how clueless volunteers could be, my mind flashed back to rooms full of white, middle class Midwesterners, and I wondered what I had actually contributed to local campaigns against poverty, racism, and violence. I kept myself updated on the politics of those movements, but without attempting to interact with individuals who were personally fighting those battles, I could never confidently say whether I had helped or hindered their efforts. In the years that followed, I threw myself into gay and lesbian activism on campus—and felt naturally authoritative when I spoke up.

It was outside the campus context, however, that I witnessed how the ability to understand others—and not outsider or insider status—truly characterizes effective advocacy. After receiving a Weissman Fellowship from [my university] to work abroad, I spent a summer at the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels, Belgium. It was initially jarring because developments in the United States were rarely mentioned in the office, where I was tracking the decriminalization of homosexuality in Africa and Asia, publicizing anti-gay violence at parades in Latvia and Russia, and translating materials on women’s health and same-sex domestic violence. What I considered contemporary gay and lesbian issues—like adoption and marriage—were distant goals on the organization’s agenda. Nonetheless, though I was working on behalf of people who were thousands of miles away and had different objectives, my familiarity with the movement’s resources, symbols, and terminology made me markedly more effective as an ally.

Shortly afterwards, I left for South Africa to do field research for my thesis. In 1996, the South African Constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and I investigated how the subsequent decade of progressive legal victories occurred in spite of an overwhelmingly unreceptive public. The Government Department demanded a quantitative comparison of countries where similar reforms had been proposed. Professors in WGS, on the other hand, suggested that I use personal testimonies to understand how post-apartheid politics shaped gender and sexuality. I quickly realized that the movement in South Africa could not be explained by comparative cases, since apartheid and history put it in a class unto itself, but the personal (and occasionally, contradictory) perspectives of my interviewees also failed to produce a definitive conclusion. It was only through a combination of fieldwork and legislative research that I found that the country’s progressive legal framework masked very specific problems—ranging from administrative indifference to endemic violence—in communities fragmented by race, class, and gender. As an outsider who still felt a connection to the movement, I was not sure whether I could accurately depict that reality. As one interviewee pointed out, however, the gay and lesbian movement in South Africa has historically depended on activists who challenged claims that homosexuality is “un-African,” but also relied on outsiders who listened to South Africans, lobbied governments, and raised awareness around the world.

I have witnessed the ways in which individuals use journalism, law, and political pressure to draw international attention to populations who suffer from abuse and repression. Whether one is part of those populations or not, the ability to listen to others and contextualize observations is a necessary precursor to meaningful advocacy. Without that background in anthropological theory and ethnographic practice, it is difficult to know whether attempts to work with marginalized populations do more harm than good. As an undergraduate, I have developed a better understanding of the ideological justifications for human rights. Now, I want to train myself to conduct fieldwork and bring the pursuit of those protections to light.

I am seeking a program that trains students to put research skills to use, but also encourages graduates to think critically about their work. Oxford’s program is especially attractive because of its insistence on the inseparability of rigorous methodology and sociopolitical theory. The MPhil in Social Anthropology stresses training in quantitative and qualitative methodologies, but graduates are encouraged to apply those skills thoughtfully by engaging with Marx, Weber, and other social theorists. The first year of the program is virtually identical to the MSc, and provides an introduction to the field of anthropology before those concepts are put into practice in the second year. Students from a variety of disciplines, from academic anthropology to advocacy and human rights, are thus able to pursue the degree and enrich each others’ experiences. In South Africa, minority movements succeeded because they stressed that human rights are indivisible. Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology stresses this interplay of religion, nationalism, and ethnicity, and Dr. X and Dr. Y would be especially invaluable resources while studying the political mobilization of identities. As a human rights advocate, the ability to conduct cross-cultural research, understand key concerns, and bring violations to light aren’t only skills I hope to master, but ones I am determined to practice.

Original Source: University of Michigan Provost

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