The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship – a programme that pays for international students to spend two years at Oxford University – regularly makes the news, as do stories about students who turned out to have lied about their background. An intersection of the two occurred last month with the story of Mackenzie Fierceton, who allegedly lied about experiencing poverty as a child and gained a place on the scheme, despite having attended a $30,000-a-year private school.
Since the incident, speculations about identity politics and the propensity of liberals to play down their privilege have made headlines. I believe the real conversation we should have is different: why do applicants who come from difficult backgrounds have to market their trauma in the hope of getting scholarships, when the most successful candidates come from privilege?
I went through this myself when I was a finalist for the Rhodes Global Scholarship in 2019. I was advised by my teachers to use my French-Algerian working-class background and the sexual abuse I had suffered during university as arguments that I deserved a place. My trauma became my entire backstory. I started believing that without using this as my “character” I would have no chance. Yet I am a brilliant student, a classically trained musician, I have worked abroad and can speak five languages.
When speaking to applicants and scholars who came from similar backgrounds, I realised we all had similar experiences. While it was refreshing to see our background being taken into account, it became totalising. Though we had similar academic achievements to our peers, without poverty or abuse we did not feel like we stood a chance. Most Rhodes scholars have come, and still come, from immense privilege: a private school education, the right networks and, most importantly, the confidence that their results and ambitions alone make them worthy candidates.
My main conclusion from the experience is that in a society where life is inherently traumatic for so many, students coming from poorer backgrounds have to market their trauma to gain an alleged moral authority or a proof of resilience that would enable them to access the elite circle of prestigious scholarships. They have to create stories in which poverty is not a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed, but an obstacle on a personal journey through adversity, and fit into a narrative that takes meritocracy to the extreme. This, in turn, hides the wider problem: the Rhodes scholarship, like many others, mainly benefits privileged students and reinforces their privilege. It is not here to tackle a structural disadvantage. If you don’t have wealth or the right network, you need to have a traumatic past that justifies your winning the scholarship.
Instead of wondering if an applicant lied about being poor, we should discuss the structural conditions that incentivise and reward stories of trauma.