Meet the winner: Jacqui Cho shares her experience with the Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Campaign
Jacqui Cho is an MPhil student in African Studies at Emmanuel College, who has recently won a Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Award.
Jacqui was involved in founding and leading the Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Campaign, which helped bring ten students from areas affected by conflict and instability to Cambridge in the 2019/2020 academic year.
Three years ago, it was but a dream that something like the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship would someday exist. Now, every year, the studentships support ten students who face severe barriers of conflict and human rights abuses to take up their offers to study at the University of Cambridge.
Back in March 2017, a handful of undergrads from a student society — Just Love Cambridge — gathered in a room in Emmanuel College to discuss a scholarship that could help young adults, whose education had been held back by conflict and forced displacement, to attend one of the world’s leading universities. Having previously worked with refugees in Greece and Lebanon, I started attending these meetings and soon found myself coordinating them. I remember being both daunted and excited by this bold vision. Further, I doubted my ability to be part of driving so big a change: I’ve never seen myself as an activist, I’ve always been on the quieter side in supervisions, and I can almost count the number of times I’ve spoken up in Q&As. But the more I talked with the other students involved and learned how genuinely dedicated they were to this cause, I also became gripped by the question, “What if this actually could happen?”. Holding onto that hope and believing in the potentially transformative impact these scholarships could have, both for individuals and wider societies, I started co-leading the Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Campaign when it was officially launched in October 2017.
Navigating the complex system of the university, where responsibilities are vaguely distributed across colleges, departments and the central university, came with challenges and, at times, frustrations, but growing support from the student community gave us a platform to increasingly engage in dialogue with the university. The turning point came in May 2018, when we received an email from a Syrian offer-holder for BA/MSci in Natural Sciences who was looking for funding. By raising awareness among students and the wider community, we helped him secure a full scholarship by co-writing an open letter, calling on the University to provide a scholarship for him and to establish a sustainable system of scholarships for others whose educations had been severely affected by political and/or humanitarian crises. The student response was truly heartening; over 550 Cambridge students signed the open letter within two days, and the student representative bodies of twelve colleges (JCRs and MCRs) passed motions of support in that month alone. Discussions with various branches of the University administration soon followed, and in September 2018, the University of Cambridge officially announced its new Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentships.
A friend once wrote in a blog:
[Cambridge] is a place of immense privilege — privilege that’s open to abuse, or to be channelled into helping others.
She was writing in relation to William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, Cambridge alumni and key figures in abolishing the slave trade. Fast forward a few centuries — listening to the stories and dreams of the Rowan Williams scholars reminds me that Cambridge really is a place of opportunities, with the potential to transform people’s lives, maybe even those of whole generations. Over the past couple of months, getting to know the scholars has deeply inspired me, and I have seen how they have also encouraged and inspired others from similar backgrounds. I’m thrilled to be part of a conversation with several scholars who are very soon planning to launch an online platform, tentatively called Letters from Rowan Williams Cambridge Scholars, where they can share their journeys and experiences at Cambridge — something they would’ve loved to read in some of their deepest struggles.
The scholars are much-needed voices of hope, courage and inspiration for us all, and I believe that they are uniquely positioned to sow into the future of Cambridge, as well as internationally. Maybe we are seeing some of the first signs of what my friends and I cautiously prayed for and scribbled in our vision statement in that small room in Emmanuel three years ago:
… that these scholarships would empower future leaders and help build the foundations for lasting peace and justice around the world.