The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most prestigious awards of academia. Those awarded the scholarship have the opportunity to study at Oxford University, one of the oldest and most well-respected research institutions in the world, for two to three years, tuition free. The list of alumni for this award is impressive, including people like two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist Nick Kristof, astronomer Edwin Hubble, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and former President Bill Clinton.
But as prestigious as it is, the Rhodes Scholarship isn’t exactly known for its inclusivity. From the time it was established in 1902 until 1977, the scholarship was only available to male students. Not only that, but black African students were also excluded, in spite of the fact that Rhodes clearly specified in his will that, “No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions.” The fact that the will also stipulated that four of the scholarships be awarded to alumni of four white-only private colleges.
In the U.S., one limiting stipulation has just been removed – the one stating that anyone awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in the U.S. must be a U.S. citizen. This year, Jin Kyu Park, a 22-year-old Harvard senior from South Korea submitted an application so powerful, that the committee felt the need to change the rules. Park is a “Dreamer” – a student who falls under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. His parents brought him to the U.S. when he was only seven years old.
Before this year, students were required to either be a U.S. citizen, or a legal permanent resident. But Park took a chance and decided to apply, in the hopes of at least sparking a conversation with the Rhodes’ Trust. In his application, he argued that by insisting on legal residency or citizenship, the Trust was excluding a large, diverse, and vibrant community that has a unique perspective.
He expected a conversation. But his application was so powerful, it inspired an immediate change. Elliot Gerson, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust told Public Radio International (PRI), “We viewed him as an extraordinary American in every way. We were proud to expand eligibility to ‘Dreamers’ like him, who contribute so much talent and ambition to the country and our future.”
Park is currently studying cellular and molecular biology at Harvard, with a minor in ethnicity, migration, and rights. At Oxford University, he plans to explore questions surrounding something near to his experiences as an immigrant: what makes a person a good, full member of American society. In an interview with PRI, Park talked about how, though some people view citizenship as the only way to become a good member of American society, he plans to explore other avenues.
This award is particularly important, as the status of the DACA program remains uncertian. President Trump announded the federal government was phasing out the program in 2017. Since then, injunctions have been issued in federal courts in Washington, DC, New York, and California, keeping the progrm going for current recipients. But the President has requested the Supreme Court take up the DACA case, and most view the program as still uncertain.
For now, the award leaves Park with a frustrating conundrum; how to study at Oxford University without being forbidden from returning to the U.S. His DACA status expires in 2020, and previous rulings have removed the “advanced parole” option, which allowed DACA recipients to return to the U.S. after travelling abroad. He is currently consulting with immigration attorneys to see if there are other options open to him.