Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship


Why we need to think about service and leadership

Monday 20 February, 2023

by Doyin Atewologun

Doyin Atewologun

The Rhodes Scholarship has always been about more than academic excellence. Its focus on young people with the energy and ambition to serve others and change the world is what sets it apart. For many years, our character, service and leadership programme has encouraged Scholars to think about their futures and the impact they want to have. Doyin Atewologun, Dean of the Rhodes Scholarship 2020-22, says these reflections are important for every student.

When Rhodes selection committees sift the thousands of applications we get each year from brilliant students across the world, they are looking for more than just academic prowess. Of course, academic excellence is a pre-requisite for a Scholarship like the Rhodes. After being selected for the Scholarship, those who are successful have to gain entry to postgraduate courses at Oxford; the bar is high to get a place at what is one of the highest ranked universities on the planet.

Many seek the Rhodes application as an important exercise in reflection and gaining self-knowledge. But there is so much more to it than that. Because we have always looked for people who wish to serve others, make a difference in the world and “fight the world’s fight”, as so many Rhodes Scholars put it, we feel an obligation to support Scholars to think deeply about what they want to achieve, how they might want to lead and the impact they want to make.

Our Character, Service and Leadership Programme (CSLP) is a core component of the Rhodes Scholar experience while they are in residence in Oxford. We aim to support, nurture and facilitate Scholars’ lifelong commitment to lead and serve others, whatever their chosen field. Through a structured programme, created very much with Scholars themselves, we aim to equip Scholars with the practical skills and tools to craft a life of impact and passion, as individuals and as a collective.

Starting with Scholars from nearly a decade ago, the Trust has created a model designed to help people think deeply about these issues. We focus on the self, encouraging Scholars to align their personal compass and act with self-awareness. We think about how we learn and serve in relation to others, learning through the differences in our very unlikeminded community  - working with people from different backgrounds, place and disciplines. And, we engage with the world, critically examining complex problems and issues through debate with peers and experts from around the world, and imagining our place and position therein.

Through a programme of events, retreats, talks, discussions and traditions aligned to the academic calendar we have created a conscious programme designed to go well beyond our Scholars’ academic studies and help meet our mission to create a community that will have real impact.

Our orientation programme soon after they arrive in Oxford is followed by two Retreats, both of which are full cohort immersive experiences. These three touch points aim to bring Rhodes Scholars in residence together for self-reflection and peer dialogue. Supplementing these core touch points are regular ongoing programming components including workshops, Scholar talks, Scholar group meetings, Scholar-organised trips, Town Halls and other gatherings. They comprise an organic and co-created learning experience, a result of on-going development with the Scholars.

One hallmark of the programme is asking Scholars to write to their future self in their second year -  we post the letters back to Scholars five years after they leave Oxford - an exercise in profound self-reflection.

The mechanisms for learning range from offering tools for enhanced self-awareness and resources for developing self-compassion; to ensuring an infrastructure for expanding relational capacity and skills for dealing with disagreement; and, offering a range of opportunities for Scholars to engage the world through talks and readings on complex global challenges, and supporting collaboration with others to create solutions that meaningfully contribute to a better world.

Naturally, many Scholars rightly push back against the idea of a prescriptive, definitive leadership development journey; indeed many are uncomfortable about traditional concepts of “leadership” itself. As such, the retreat for Scholars in their first year at Oxford is explicitly themed “No One Way to Lead”. When they gather for a second year retreat the theme moves on to “No One Way to Build a Good Life”.

In each, small groups work together to reflect and engage each other more fully, exploring themes such as leadership, identity, values, courage, risk, vulnerability and impact in the world.

What’s the effect? Many of our recent alumni regard this part of their experience as a profound opportunity to shape their thinking. It’s an approach we think has something to offer beyond our context in Oxford, but for our part, we’re going to continue experimenting, co-creating, learning and adapting our programmes.

What we do know is that the world needs unlikeminded individuals impatient  to make change so we will continue to create opportunities to ensure that all future Rhodes Scholars in Oxford can focus on personal growth and leverage the power of community to co-create a better world.

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