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January 26, 2016

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Fudan grad among China’s first Rhodes Scholars

A graduate from Shanghai’s Fudan University is among the first batch of students from Chinese mainland to receive the Rhodes Scholarship.

As a winner of this prestigious prize, Gong Chenzhuo, who graduated from Fudan last year with a bachelor’s degree in international politics, will continue his studies at one of the world’s oldest academic institutions this fall.

Named after British mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes, the postgraduate scholarship is intended to further the education of civic-minded students who demonstrate a propensity to emerge as future world leaders.

It is also among the most selective awards of its kind. Each year, the scholarship’s administrators receive about 12,000 applicants from 32 countries. From this group, 89 will receive the prize, which includes tuition-free postgraduate education at Oxford University.

Last year marked the expansion of the Rhodes Trust, which oversees the administration and dispersal of the scholarship, into China. The move was supported in part by the Li Ka Shing Foundation and other donors from China, as well as the University of Oxford.

“China has an important international role to play in the 21st century, and we wish to reflect that in the global footprint of the Rhodes Scholarship,” Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, told Shanghai Daily.

Conn was among nine selectors who conferred the trust’s coveted scholarship on Gong and three other Chinese students in December.

Global outlook

Looking at Gong’s resume, one finds an impressive list of academic and personal achievements.

Gong graduated Fudan with a 3.8 GPA. He was also named a Star Graduate, an honor given to the school’s top-ten undergraduates each year.

The young man attributes his success to his family and Fudan. Gong said his parents always allowed him to make decisions for himself, which he believes made him much more independent than many of his peers. The supportive atmosphere of Fudan also helped instill a cooler head and a warmer heart when it comes to the world’s problems.

Gong’s education wasn’t limited to Shanghai though. He has travelled to 28 countries and participated in international exchange programs in Brazil, Britain, the US and Finland.

One such program was the Prudential Foundation Global Citizens Program in Washington DC. While in the US capital, Gong interned with China Central Television in addition to English-language course work.

“It was really busy and challenging but I developed my capability of handling multiple tasks efficiently,” he said.

His academic studies have also been recognized internationally. His work on US social media diplomacy was presented in two international conferences: A public diplomacy conference in Washington DC and a postgraduate conference organized by The European Consortium for Political Research.

Gong also has plenty of experiences as a volunteer teacher at home and abroad. He spent five of his last seven summer and winter vacations teaching at rural areas in China, including three in Boxue Village in Hainan Province.

“I visited there three times because I felt I was needed after my first time there organized by a volunteer group in our university,” he said. “I think what those children lacked was not only academic tutoring, but companionship and care. I wanted to encourage them to pursue knowledge and go out into a bigger world.”

These same concerns also brought him to Tanzania, where he volunteered as an English teacher in a local public primary school during his summer vacation in 2013. Gong is now in the country again with the help of the China Scholarship Council, which recruited 20 interns for UNESCO offices all around the world. He will finish his internship in July.

Ready for Rhodes

Gong was motivated to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship after a delegation of Rhodes Scholars visited Fudan last March. He said he was impressed by their modest but mature personalities.

To prepare for the rigorous application process, he searched for information about former Rhodes Scholars in the US. In the end, he concluded that the best way to win over scholarship administrators was just to be himself.

“My preparation was mainly about self-reflection, to think about my own characteristics, my dreams and my limitations,” he said.

The interview was a two-part process. One part included dinner with other finalists and selectors, followed by face-to-face interviews the following day.

“The dinner was part of the interview because we want to see how they would act in all kinds of social occasions,” explained Conn.

In the formal interview, each student was questioned for 30 minutes about their academic knowledge, their experience and their future plans.

Gong said he was a little nervous to attend the final interview. But when he saw the other finalists, he calmed down.

“I thought all the other applicants were excellent and it would not be a pity if I failed,” Gong said.

The next day, as he prepared to return to Tanzania, Gong received a fateful phone call.

“Mr Simon Rabinovitch, the National Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship for China, called me, saying the competition was really fierce in a serious tone,” he remembered. “He really made me believe that I had been rejected. But he continued with a ‘but’ and told me I was admitted.

“I was surprisingly calm when I was told the good news, because I knew this was the beginning, not the end,” he added.

Gong is now deciding between degrees in Internet studies, education and business administration at Oxford. His objective is to create an NGO that will empower rural students and other marginalized groups in China.

“I plan to pursue two one-year master’s programs,” Gong said. “One of them will be the master’s of business administration. I have a passion for pro bono activities, but I lack skills when it comes to organizing, management and capital raising.”

“I know the Said Business School of Oxford emphasizes social entrepreneurship,” he added. “It has the famous Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship and special programs for business startup. I hope I can accumulate experience to help draw up blueprint for my NGO dreams.”

Promising start

Scholarship selectors say they were impressed by all the Chinese finalists, yet in the end they could only pick four final winners.

“This is a tremendously exciting start for the Rhodes Scholarship for China,” said Rabinovitch, “The four recipients are outstanding students with a commitment to public service both at home and abroad.”

James Fallows, a former Rhodes Scholar and US President Barack Obama’s speech writer, expressed his satisfaction too.

“The four selectees would do honor to any of the long-established programs anywhere else in the world,” he said, “They are academically very accomplished, and in their different ways they have already shown a commitment to ‘fight the world’s fight’ internationally and for the betterment of their own country. My only regret about the process was the inevitable one: That choosing four scholars meant excluding several other deserving and highly qualified candidates.”

The other three winners from China included Ren Naying, an English language and literature student at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Ren is a co-founder of the China LGBT+ Youth Network. She is also a volunteer English teacher for children of migrant workers in Beijing. She plans to pursue a degree in women’s studies at Oxford.

Another winner was Zhang Chunying, a master’s in journalism student at Columbia University with undergraduate degrees in economics and English from Zhejiang University. Zhang intends to read for a master’s in social intervention and policy evaluation.

Zhang Wanyu is a law student at Peking University. She was an exchange student at Stanford Law School and was Chinese champion of the Jessup Moot Court Competition. She has been active as a volunteer legal-aid both at Peking University and in Sichuan Province, focusing on factory workers who have suffered workplace injuries. Zhang intends to complete a second bachelor’s in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.


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