Hera Jay Brown, who graduated from UT in August 2018, has been named a 2020 Rhodes Scholar—the ninth current or former UT student to earn this prestigious honor.
As a Rhodes Scholar, Brown—a native of Corryton, Tennessee—will begin all-expenses-paid studies at the University of Oxford in England next fall. Brown tentatively plans to pursue both a master’s degree and a doctorate in migration studies.
Brown, a current Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellow, joins this esteemed group of Rhodes Scholars from UT Knoxville:
- Bernadotte Schmitt, 1905
- Matthew G. Smith, 1911
- Arthur Preston Whitaker, 1917
- William E. Derryberry, 1928
- Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, 1979
- Jennifer Santoro Stanley, 1995
- Lindsay Lee, 2014
- Grant Rigney, 2019
“Having a Rhodes Scholar for a second consecutive year is a tremendous honor that underscores our university’s commitment to excellence in undergraduate scholarship, research, and engagement,” Chancellor Donde Plowman said. “Hera Jay has spent her academic and professional career researching important, and sometimes difficult, topics. She wants to make a difference in the world by informing international policy and decision making.”
Brown came to UT as part of the university’s premier honors program, the Haslam Scholars. The third Haslam Scholar to be named a Rhodes Scholar, she already has a lengthy resume of scholarship and service.
At UT, she was in the College Scholars Program, a College of Arts and Sciences honors program that allows students to design their own interdisciplinary major. Working with Tricia Hepner, associate professor of anthropology, Brown pursued a course of study in sociocultural anthropology and migration studies, centered on research and engagement with forced migrant populations around the globe.
Brown was editor of Pursuit, UT’s journal of undergraduate research, in 2017–18. Her own undergraduate research focused on understanding the experience of Syrian refugee workers in special economic zones and in urban life, and included fieldwork in Jordan, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. Brown was also a Baker Scholar at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. On campus, she starred in a shadow cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and was an executive board member of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness in Tennessee.
After graduating from UT, Brown spent three months as the LGBTQ+ policy intern for former Vice President Joe Biden’s DC-based foundation and then five months in Egypt as a presidential associate at the American University in Cairo. She returned to the United States in February 2019 to work as a site coordinator with Catholic Charities’ Refugee Youth Program in Nashville.
Since September 2019, Brown has been a Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellow through a grant jointly funded by the US Department of State and the European Commission. Through the fellowship, Brown is completing a research project on citizenship by investment across Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, and Lithuania.
“I am deeply honored to represent the Volunteers as our ninth Rhodes Scholar. Studying at Oxford will be an incredible opportunity and platform to collaborate with many of the world’s best scholars working to advance the rights of and protections for refugees around the globe,” Brown said. “Through the Rhodes I have a real chance here to bolster partnerships I’ve built with refugee communities in the United States and abroad. I’m beyond excited to be a part of that necessary work and honored to learn with and from my new Rhodes community.”
According to the Rhodes Trust, Brown is the first transgender woman to be elected to a Rhodes Scholarship, an experience she describes as deeply meaningful.
Following her graduate studies at Oxford, Brown plans to pursue a law degree in the United States and eventually start a law firm that provides specialized legal counsel to asylum seekers as both a regional and cultural expert and legal advocate.
Andrew Seidler, director of UT’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, which facilitates nomination of UT candidates for nationally competitive awards, said Brown is richly deserving of a Rhodes.
“I first met Hera in fall 2015, and she just bowled me over with her seriousness of purpose but also her warmth and quirky sense of humor,” Seidler said. “Since then she has only become more determined, more knowledgeable, more capable of being a force for good in the world. What an outstanding success story hers is.”
Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements but also for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and leadership potential. The scholarships stem from the Rhodes Trust, a British charity established to honor the will and bequest of Cecil J. Rhodes, a British business leader, mining magnate, and politician. The first American Rhodes Scholars entered Oxford in 1904.
Thirty-two US Rhodes Scholars are chosen each year in a two-stage process. Applicants are first endorsed by their college or university. This year more than 2,900 students began the application process; 963 were endorsed by 298 different colleges and universities. Selection committees in each of 16 US districts invite the strongest applicants to interview. Applicants are chosen on the criteria of academic excellence, character, and leadership, and must “be conscious of inequities” in the world. Adam Cureton, associate professor of philosophy and a 2003 Rhodes Scholar, chairs UT’s Rhodes nomination committee.
Brown traveled to Chicago this past weekend for the interview portion of the process. At the end of the day, the judges announced that she was one of the two winners from District 12, which encompasses Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee.
UT students interested in the Rhodes scholarship and other nationally competitive awards can visit the ONSF website to learn more about the application process and schedule an appointment.
Amy Blakely (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-5034)