Rhodes scholarship


Our conversation with Rene Sharanya Verma, a student of History at St. Stephen’s College, slam poet and feminist rapper, and one of the five Indian recipients of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, reveals her expectations and plans for the future.

Q. How does it feel to have secured one of the most prestigious scholarships offered to Indian students by a foreign university?

Rene: It’s quite surreal, really! I’m humbled and honoured to be joining a cohort of eighty-eight other inspiring and inspired individuals around the world who are working in profound ways to create a better future through the fields of advocacy, gender relations, policy formulation, ethics, and healthcare. More than anything, availing of the privilege to study at a premier institution like Oxford reaffirms my commitment to using my voice and work to contribute to larger cultural and political conversations across the world.

Q. What course have you chosen to study at Oxford and what is your particular interest in this subject? How does it compare with similar courses at other institutions?

Rene: I intend to pursue two Masters of Studies (MSt) programs in Women’s Studies and Film Aesthetics. Ultimately, I aim to work on feminist film theory, engaging with how filmic elements like playback music, colour, light shape and are shaped by the performance of gender. Additionally, I am interested in addressing notions of spectatorship in the context of Indian cinema.  I also hope to create films, both fictive and ethnographic, which combine my love for spoken word art, narrative cinema, humor as a site for politics and advocacy.

Both programs offer an interesting blend of interdisciplinary engagement along with specificity of the course modules provided. They focus on research methodology and theory, have small batches of students, and the thrust is on original research through one-on-one mentoring and tutoring. More exciting however, is the provision of opportunities to work with the Oxford International Women’s Festival, the Women in the Humanities programme, and the International Gender Studies Centre. This provides a great chance for young scholars in the academy to engage with grassroots activism and the possibilities and challenges of transnational feminism.

Q. Most students are apprehensive about the daunting application process that is involved in applying to foreign universities. How was your experience?

Rene: I spent my second year hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. I can vouch for the fact that application processes seem much more daunting than they actually are, especially if one paces themselves and is cognizant of deadlines. The process of applying to Rhodes is quite straightforward, and in distinction to other scholarship applications, begins quite early. I was able to zero in on my course combinations towards the end of my second year in college, and worked on my application during my summer study, which was beneficial.

One of the great things about the Rhodes scholarship is the amount of support you receive from the Rhodes Trust in assisting and streamlining the application process to the University, with reference to English language requirements, connecting with scholars from previous years and same courses/colleges. All in all, my experience has been very rewarding and relatively stress-free, so I’m quite relieved!

Q. What would be your advice to students applying abroad regarding statements of purpose and letters of recommendation?

Rene: The personal statement for the scholarship is a thousand word essay designed to present a concise version of one’s goals, aspirations, and by extension, who one really is. It can seem challenging at first, but I would highly recommend that candidates begin by thinking about the differences between an academic statement of purpose, a personal statement and a resume. It might ease one into thinking about how to approach the personal statement in a sui generis way- there is no right or wrong personal statement. I think the best way to go ahead is to present cogently and simply the arguments, questions, ideas, experiences that best define you. For instance, my statement revolved around silence, interweaving personal anecdotes with my academic proclivities and aims.

For the letters of recommendation, it would be prudent to approach professors, mentors and teachers who have encouraged your work through supervision, tutoring, discussion and are well aware of your strengths and weaknesses. I think that extends to certificates vouching for good conduct and extra-curricular activities.  It’s crucial to notify your references well in advance, keeping in mind their work schedules and other commitments. It is always helpful to provide referees with an idea of your proposed area of study, a resume and transcripts or other relevant documents.

Q. How was your experience at the interview? On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how nervous were you?

Rene:  My interview experience was quite wonderful! I did experience jitters (which would ring in at a very strong 6) prior to the interview, but luckily, the committee organized a dinner with the interview panel a night prior to our final interviews. We got to interact with the panellists, distinguished scholars, professionals, and Rhodes scholars from previous years– who were kind, jocular and very accommodating. The setup also ensured that we got to interact with our peers, which was one of the most rewarding takeaways from the experience, as some of us formed great friendships.

The interview itself was refreshing and thought-provoking. It never seemed like an interrogation, and was an engagement where I was given a lot of space to articulate my beliefs and politics, research interests and achievements. The panel was not intimidating, au contraire, the panellists were very responsive to my answers and even shared a few jokes!

Q. What, according to you, was the most instrumental factor that led you to achieve the scholarship?

Rene: One thing that I’ve learnt is that there is no one type of Rhodes Scholar, and indeed, therein lies the beauty of the scholarship. I’d like to believe that one of the most instrumental factors that aided me was that I tried to be as honest about my beliefs as possible- to the interview panels, selection committee and most importantly to myself. I reckon my interests, both academic and extra-curricular, ranging from film-making, screenwriting, theater, spoken-word poetry demonstrated a singularity of purpose, and an unequivocal avowal to ideas I am passionate about.

Q. Do you have any apprehensions about moving so far away from home?

Rene: I have lived away from home prior to this, but never for so long. I’m going to miss the little things- hugging my family in vivo, eating in North Campus, walking in the Lodhi gardens. Living alone has also made me check my privilege and be grateful for things I took for granted—like household chores, food, and the presence of loved ones. Most importantly, I’m quite nervous about the weather, but I hope to bask in the ever-elusive sun as long as possible!

Q. What are you looking forward to at Oxford? Any expectations?

Rene: I’m looking forward to using two years of my life to expand my horizons, meet new people, travel on a budget, and create some meaningful work.  I am excited to join a vast community of intellectuals, engage with a multitude of ideas, and forge lasting friendships. I’m delighted to be connecting with advocates for gender equality from across the world, fellow poets and writers and I hope to work with theatre, sketch comedy and film clubs while I’m there!

Abhinaya Harigovind

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Nikhil_Passport_Size_PictureNikhil Pandhi from St. Stephens College recently received the Rhodes scholarship, one of the most prestigious international graduate scholarships in the world.

Along with coverage of the university and college fees at Oxford, the recipient of the scholarship also receives a monthly maintenance stipend to cover accommodation and living expenses that is funded by the Rhodes Trust. Although all scholars become affiliated with the residential college while at Oxford, they also enjoy access to Rhodes House, an early 20th century mansion with numerous public rooms, gardens, library, study areas and other facilities.



You recently received the Rhodes scholarship. I’m sure that must be really exciting! Tell us about what motivated you to apply?

Quite honestly, I had always heard about the Rhodes but when I figured that my college seniors had applied for it when I was a fresher, it seemed a lot more possible and doable. I saw that I had coincidently accumulated several extra curricular activities with a fairly good academic score that further motivated me to apply. I also thought that Rhodes is an excellent scholarship for somebody who is interested in academic and research particularly. Being somebody who is, I thought it would be good to give it a shot.

What was the procedure?

The procedure is an online application that opens on 1st July. The online application contains of your personal details, a statement of purpose and letter of recommendation.

How did you prepare for it? Any tips for aspirants?

The Statement of Purpose is the most important point of your application in which you need to be really sure of which course you are applying for and why you are applying for it. In order to draft the Statement of Purpose you need to be really sure about what you are writing and deconstruct yourself in way to portray your strengths.

How was your final interview?

I’m always the one who prepares for the interview and not leave it to luck and chance. You need to be thorough with your SOP because at the end of the day the SOP is the fulsome of the interview as whatever they ask is you is more or less based on the SOP.

Having said that, one needs to be aware of not only what you want to do at Oxford but also how it will be relevant to modern day South Asia, as you will be representing your country at Oxford. You need to be aware of theoretical dimensions; debates and controversies around your field and you need to brush up on your own abilities and strength. In the final interview they assess your understanding of the course, your ambitions and aims.

How much importance is given to academic achievements in the application?

Academics are important, but at the same time importance is given to your extra curricular activities, sports and leadership initiatives. I believe that they are not looking for a particular thing but for an overall profile.

What gave you an edge over the other contestants?

I think it was my interest in fields that haven’t been explored widely. Like, I taught myself an East African language “Kiswahili”; I founded the poetry society of my college; I’m trained in Indian Classical Music and I play tennis and badminton regularly. They are looking for somebody who has demonstrable leadership abilities in different realms supported by a good academic record with an equally balanced extra curricular. Also my first book of poetry, “Derelictions” is out too!

Which course are you planning to study at Oxford?

I’ll be studying Archeology at Oxford. I want to be a historian/archeologist with a particular focus on South Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean while continuing in academia and research so that I can particularly contribute towards the study of regions of history that have not been studied traditionally.

Now that you have this brilliant opportunity, how do you plan ahead?

The MSc is a one-year course and then I plan to apply for the MPhil and follow research with DPhil so that I can teach and continue my research independently. The Rhodes covers a minimum of two years of your education and based on your academic records it is extendable to your third year as well.

Nikhil is currently studying History and has won the Westcott Memorial History Prize, the Ranjit Singh Goel Memorial Award as well as the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Undergraduate Scholarship. We wish this multifaceted student the best for his future endeavors!

For more information about the Rhodes Scholarship, click here.

Jalnidh Kaur from St. Stephen’s College recently received the Rhodes scholarship, one of the most prestigious international graduate scholarships in the world. The recipient not only gets to study any subject of her choice at the University of Oxford on full scholarship, but is also paid a stipend to cover living expenses. Exclusive rights are also given for entry into the Rhodes Mansion in the University Campus.

Q) Hi Jalnidh, you recently received the Rhodes scholarship. I’m sure that must be really exciting! Tell us more about what motivated you to apply?

I heard about the Rhodes scholarship when I was in Class 7 or 8. I knew about Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Sagarika Ghosh being Rhodes scholars – but it was only in my second year that I heard about the Rhodes scholarship from my seniors. When I researched, I realised that the deadline for the applications was 31st July, and I quickly applied! I realise what a prestige it is to be admitted to this programme. I know that I cannot afford an education abroad myself – and this is such a good opportunity!

Q) What was the procedure? How did you prepare for it?

I realised that I had to apply online and the deadline was on the 31st of July. I had to send in my resume and a detailed essay about my goals, interests, and activities. There was a preliminary interview. It was very technical – based on the discipline (economics) that I am studying. A panel of economists conducted the interview – it included the ISI game theorist Arunav Sen.

Q) How was the interview? Who was it conducted by?

The final interview was a general one. Only 18-20 people made it until there. It was held in Bombay. The panel comprised of 13 or 14 past Rhodes scholars. They just wanted to see whether a candidate possessed the three necessities of Rhodes’ will: academic excellence, performance in sports and community action.

Q) How much importance is given to academic achievements in the application?

The preliminary interview was based on our academic quotient. A group of economists interviewed us. If you had to get through that round, you had to be excited about your discipline.

Q) What all extra-curricular activities were you a part of?

When I was in 12th grade, I used to live in Ludhiana, and I saw the children of construction workers and marginal workers out on the roads. I got them all into a classroom and just taught them the English alphabet. After about one month, they were very excited about going to school, so I got them enrolled in a public school. When I came to Delhi, I started a learning centre for street children called Eclair in Roop Nagar. I also took part in various Business Plan competitions- along with two of my classmates. I initiated a B-Plan called ‘EurekaWow’, which helped spread better learning about topics in Economics. I used to debate as well.

Q) What do you think gave you an edge over the other contestants?

Quite honestly, I thought the rest of the candidates were over-qualified as compared to me. I was the youngest of the lot. My peers belonged to IITs, IIMs or were pursuing PhDs. I think it was my enthusiasm that got me through. I was so excited about my discipline, because I love Economics. I was also very honest. During my preliminary interview, if they asked me a question and I did not know the answer, I told them so; I never pretended to be someone who I am not. I think that was very important.

Q) Now that you have this brilliant opportunity, how do you plan ahead? Which courses are you planning to study?

I plan to do an M. Phil in Economics. I have heard that it is quite a technical course. My professor has told me that I would have to work very hard to be at par with the rest of my classmates. Most people who have gone to Oxford have gotten into policymaking, which seems like an attractive field. If I get an appropriate job in this field, I would be very keen to take it up, but my first preference would be to do a D. Phil after my M. Phil.


Adita Bhatia
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