As a scholar committed to giving back, University of Tennessee alumna Hera Jay Brown’s title as UT’s ninth Rhodes Scholar is only a glimpse into her life and work abroad.
Graduated in August 2018, Brown will return to campus to be the keynote speaker at UT’s International Education Week. Brown’s speech “Uncomfortable UTK: Navigating Space, Place, and Positionality Abroad” will be held on Tuesday, November 16th at 7:00 pm in Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, Toyota Auditorium.
Brown is entering the second and final year of her master’s of philosophy in development studies at Oxford University, home of the Rhodes Scholarship, where she studies refugee displacement and forced migration in Jordan. Though she hasn’t been able to visit the country due to the ongoing pandemic and vaccine disparities, she has virtually connected with anthropology research assistants in Jordan to continue her work — a challenging and rewarding accomplishment.
“The digital aspect has made it a bit more difficult in terms of being able to actually engage as an anthropologist,” Brown said. “I think that human connection aspect is something that I really enjoy and want to center in my work, and of course that’s not as easy to do when you’re doing it through a Zoom screen … but ultimately I’m learning a different method of how to engage and interesting insights are coming out of it nonetheless.”
In addition to her virtual work in Jordan, Brown advocates for human rights in a number of other regions. This summer, she worked virtually with a small sustainable development company in Ghana advocating for access to the labor market and safe work regulations for workers with technical and vocational educational backgrounds.
Brown also recently joined human rights advocacy group Dosti Network, which is working to evacuate families fleeing from persecution in Afghanistan after the Taliban recently overthrew the country’s government. Summia Tora, the first Afghani Rhodes Scholar and Brown’s close friend, started the network after trying to evacuate her own family from the Afghani capital of Kabul and noticing that the greater Rhodes community was simultaneously fielding other calls for evacuation aid.
Recognizing the Rhodes Scholarship’s ability to affect change, Tora then created Dosti from a group of Rhodes Scholars, pooling their various resources and time together to aid evacuation efforts. In addition to Rhodes-specific resources, Dosti Network is also accepting donations to support its mission.
The grassroots network collaborates with institutional avenues such as the Scholar Rescue Fund, an Institute of International Education program which funds fellowships for displaced scholars across the world. Brown recently helped a professor in Afghanistan receive approval for the program and is currently working on having him exfiltrated from the country.
“I think that the community aspect of Rhodes has really driven a lot of us to be able to support this mission with Dosti Network and being able to use these kind of elite spaces like Rhodes and other organizations like Fulbright, etc. to try to help as many people as possible that are seeking help,” Brown said.
As a scholar with access to networks and resources, Brown sees it as her duty to go beyond writing and researching, to actually volunteering where help is urgently needed.
“People that are in kind of privileged positions that engage with the spectrum of migration and especially displacement, I think there’s also a requirement to be able to use networks and access and position to support emerging crises as they come,” Brown said.
In addition to her international efforts, Brown also engages in her local Oxford community through ACORN, a mass membership UK union advocating for more fair communities.
“Where I enjoy spending, actually, my off-time is actually going and being in the space with people who are trying to rectify inequalities in Oxford through direct action and through organizing,” Brown said. “That’s really been something that’s really been nourishing outside of school and outside of my academic work.”
Since graduating, Brown has spent several years abroad as a Fulbright-Schuman grantee and then Rhodes Scholar. As a Transgender woman and the first Transgender woman Rhodes Scholar, Brown advises fellow LGBTQ+ students looking to pursue similar international opportunities to evaluate all of their identities and privileges before assuming that moving abroad will result in any particular outcome based on their identity as an LGBTQ+ person.
“Oftentimes, when scholars from the United States or students from the United States go to other countries we have the privilege of being American, white, wealthy, comparatively, and so if someone’s going to engage in these spaces, no matter what your identities are and no matter which ones you hold, that you want to take stock of who you are as a whole person and try to think about that domestic context and how they intersect,” Brown said.
She added that finding a mentor as an undergraduate and meeting with staff members at UT’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (OURF)was key to her professional and international journey.
“That office specifically has been instrumental in my own kind of academic development,” Brown said. “Being able to find funding opportunities and being able to find experiences that are funded really offer someone an opportunity that can sometimes often level a playing field between economic disparities, financial disparities between people on campus.”
Andrew Seidler, director of the OURF, met Brown when interviewing for his position and instantly noticed her talent. The two have stayed in touch over the years, even as Brown moved abroad.
“It is really wonderful to have a student from the University of Tennessee and a student who you’ve known really well who is representing us at this national and global stage, but I think also just someone who has a lot of a lot of courage and who has a really strong commitment to being a voice for and with people who don’t always have them,” Seidler said.
OURF connects students with opportunities for research and scholarships, including international opportunities such as the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarship programs. The office, open to undergraduate students of all majors, can play a pivotal role in directing students toward a particular network or opportunity.
Part of the office’s work, Seidler said, is the philosophy that every student has a special attribute about them and the subsequent process of helping them discover and utilize what that may be.
“Sometimes students know what it is and sometimes they don’t,” Seidler said. “Sometimes it takes someone else to recognize something. It could be small, big, and sort of use that as a point of departure to really get creative. I think the students who do best and who I think do college best and who are especially successful in applying for awards are the ones who are willing to take some risk and create their own path.”
Seidler said that for Brown, that path was crafted around international education.
“Hera always had a very global view, I think partly intuitively but also partly because she certainly made international education central to what she was doing,” Seirohdler said. “The amount of time that she spent abroad is pretty remarkable. … She really kind of staged the different sort of things she would apply for to make dreams of hers possible.”
As for the next bend in her path, Brown will graduate from Oxford next year and is considering attending law school afterward, among other possible opportunities.