Sheer brilliance

A look at what goes into the making of a Rhodes scholar

November 14, 2011 05:05 pm | Updated 05:05 pm IST

When you consider that scholars from India alone include Kannada playwright Girish Karnad, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Journalist Sagarika Ghose, Economist Sanjeev Sanyal, and Olympian Ranjith Bhatia, among many others, it becomes apparent why many term the Rhodes Scholarship ‘the world's most prestigious scholarship.'

And joining this rather elite club this year is Vrinda Bhandari, a final year student from National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, one of those chosen for the 2012 Rhodes Scholarship. “I didn't expect to get the scholarship at all. As the final interview ended, I knew it went well. But a good interview does not guarantee the scholarship,” she says.

The Rhodes Scholarship, named after Cecil Rhodes — the founder of the largest diamond company in the world — is an international postgraduate award for study at the University of Oxford.

Run by the Rhodes Trust, and guided by Rhodes' will, it selects the brightest of the brightest from across the globe, including five from India yearly. Since it was established in 1902, it has selected more than 7,000 scholars, and more than 100 people from India.

Selection process

The basis of selection largely relies on Cecil Rhodes' will. In it, he desired candidates for the scholarship to “not be merely bookworms,” adding that they needed to have “literary and scholastic” achievements. Other qualities needed include success in outdoor sports, “sympathy”, “protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship,” “moral force of character” during schooldays and an “instinct to lead.”

With a second rank in the renowned law college, having been a five-time national basketball player, leadership roles in school, and her topic of ‘Access to justice' allowing her scope to work for the poor, showing compassion and commitment, Ms. Bhandari's resume ticked all the boxes needed for the scholarship.

The application process starts with a 1,000-word essay (statement of purpose) detailing the proposed course of study at Oxford, general interests and activities, and the aims of the candidate. Based primarily on this, out of the hundreds of applications received, a panel consisting of eminent academicians and former Rhodes Scholars shortlists candidates for a preliminary interview.

“There was a separate interview for lawyers in Mumbai. The panel grills you on your area of interest – which in my case was ‘Access to justice.' Out of the more than 20 lawyers present, four were selected for the final round of interviews,” says Ms. Bhandari.

Across all streams, a total of 16 candidates were shortlisted for the final interview round, which was chaired by Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Sons. “Apart from Mr. Tata, there were more than seven panellists representing a wide spectrum of fields. For around 20 minutes, they asked me about the relevance of the work I had done, the role of the judiciary and my sporting interests,” says Ms. Bhandari.

On November 5, Mr. Tata announced her to be one of the five Rhodes Scholars from India selected to study in Oxford (the others being Akul Dayal from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, Amit Kumar from IIT-Rourkee, Sujith Kumar from Delhi School of Economics, and Nikita Kaushal from Pune University).

NLSIU connection

“It is almost a tradition to produce a Rhodes Scholar from our college,” says Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU R. Venkata Rao. Since 1992, the university has produced 16 scholars, nearly one every year.

“The five-year course expects the students to complete 60 projects, with viva voce based on them. This helps the student acquire skills in writing and presentation. Apart from these, all-round abilities are fashioned here with regular events in sports, theatre, music and literature,” he adds.

As with many law students chosen for the scholarship, including Ms. Bhandari, the one-year Bachelor's in Civil Law seems to be the preferred course at Oxford.

About the law course, the 2010 Rhodes Scholarship recipient and an alumni from NLSIU, Niranjan, says, “The teaching was simply brilliant; and the chance to study even small parts of English law was a great experience. In addition, one has the opportunity to hear some of the greatest minds in the common law world speak.”

Now practising in the Madras High Court, he called the entire experience — from the interview rounds, where panellists included Mr. Tata and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, to the law course — “invaluable.”

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