This article first appeared on the University of Oxford’s “Oxford Thinking” campaign website. The interviews followed the acceptance of the Rotary Foundation into the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors, recognising the Rotary Foundation’s support of students at the University.
Many different factors can motivate a return to study. For Vanessa Picker, a policy professional living in Sydney, Australia, it was the opportunity to upskill that first attracted her to graduate education. ‘I’d worked quite broadly in the field of social policy for a number of government departments,’ she recalls. ‘I was doing lots of briefings, speeches and policy work, but in crafting solutions to the problems I was looking at, I realised that it’s really important to be able to measure the impact of what we were doing.’
Vanessa made the 10,000-mile journey to Oxford in October 2016, after being offered a place on the MSc in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. It’s an opportunity she would have struggled to accept had it not been for a Rotary Scholarship. ‘I think it would have been very difficult to make it happen without it. And if I had found a way, there would have been a lot of financial stress and pressure,’ she says.
The Rotary Scholarship Programme was established at Oxford in 1949, with the aim of fostering international interaction and understanding. Supported by the Rotary Foundation, the programme provides funding to graduate students working in six priority areas, including peace and conflict resolution; disease prevention and treatment; and economic and community development.
‘It was great to meet the other Rotary Scholars, precisely because of these priority areas,’ reflects Mark Loong, who received a scholarship whilst studying for a Master of Public Policy last year. ‘Everyone has a real passion for social and human development. Even though you’re meeting people from all around the world working in very diverse study areas, many of us have common professional goals and insights to share.’
Like Vanessa, Mark had also spent a number of years in employment before pursuing graduate education. After being admitted as a lawyer in 2012, he worked for the Attorney General’s Department in Australia, and later went on to establish his own social enterprise. With an interest spanning climate change, social policy and human rights, Oxford offered him the opportunity to reflect on past work, and draw his varied experiences together.
Without the financial support provided by the scholarship, Mark would have been forced to turn down his offer to study at Oxford. But although the funding he and Vanessa received played a crucial role in shaping their university experiences, it is just one part of a much larger story. ‘You often think of scholarships as being quite formal,’ says Vanessa, who is now a DPhil candidate in Social Intervention. ‘You get the money and perhaps there is some kind of network, but this is a very, very personalised network.’
During their time at Oxford, Rotary Scholars are assigned to an experienced Rotarian host and invited to attend regular events and talks at their local club. They also have the opportunity to engage in some of the organisation’s community service initiatives – something Mark was particularly keen to participate in. ‘I was able to get a local school to come to the Blavatnik School of Government for a day of simulated policy making, which was loads of fun,’ he says.
As Vanessa explains, it was having access to this wider Rotary community, and the many layers of support that came along with it, which enabled her to thrive. ‘I had enough financial security through the scholarship that I could focus on doing well academically, and at the same time, make the most of what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in Oxford.’