In conversation with Hatim Hussain on winning Rhodes Scholarship 2019

Mr. Hatim Hussain, 5th year student at Gujarat National Law University won Rhodes Scholarship 2019 and became the only Indian student to win Rhodes Scholarship in 2019. The interview was conducted by Hrithik Khurana, EBC and SCC Online Ambassador who is pursuing Law from GNLU. 

  1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am a final-year law student from Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar. My interests lie in the interdisciplinary study of law and I enjoy painting, playing chess and travelling to explore new cultures.

  1. Now that you are in fifth year and nearing graduation, what has your experience been like throughout the course of these 5 years?

It has been exhilarating so far. While I recognise that coming from a National Law University provides an unparalleled advantage and access to several opportunities which would otherwise have been difficult to tap, they are by no means the sole islands of meritocracy. I believe any experience on this level (at an NLU or otherwise) is purely subjective and reciprocal to the effort one puts in. My only desire going into law school was to have an open mind and an inclination to experience everything intellectually stimulating, which, in hindsight, was quite crucial in shaping my interests and making me who I am.

That said I have come across some of the finest minds at GNLU, in perhaps the most unique mix of cultural diversity one can find. It taught me a lot about a lot of things, and the sheer breadth of perspectives it offered was truly enriching in terms of my social experience.

Particularly on the academic side of things, I would be remiss if I don’t mention the excellent infrastructural support the University provided. We also had some exceptional faculties who taught subjects with a tremendous amount of energy and were single-handedly responsible to cultivate my love for those subjects. At the same time, true learning is also community-oriented and often comes through the most mundane and unexpected interactions with your peers and friends, so it’s important to engage with the community around as well.

  1. What all co-curricular and extra-curricular activities did you take up during your law school life and how did you manage those with academics?

My college experience was perhaps a mix of everything – I dabbled with a lot of mooting in the initial years; later transitioning to legal research and writing for the most part of the law school. Meanwhile, I was also mindful of the immense exposure law school can provide, and used this as an opportunity to work on myself as a person. From that perspective, I pursued several conferences, research assistantships, legal and non-law internships, ventured start-ups, engaged in community service and sports as well as undertook work at several committees/centres at the University. At the same time, I was also undertaking professional exams such as Chartered Accountancy and Company Secretary. It was indeed quite absorbing to do many of these activities while also undertaking a part-time job that supported my education and family (on account of limiting financial circumstances), though it equipped me with a strong ability to multitask and I was able to leverage it, fortunately with some success, in my academic and non-academic endeavours.

Insofar as managing them is concerned, I was never one to do one thing at a time. I felt more productive with more tasks on my plate and the thrill to learn something new every day kept me going. While a consistent academic interest should be a focus at all times, there is always ample time to go beyond and do things that one finds appealing.

  1. When and why did you decide to pursue postgraduate studies?

While my reasons to pursue a Masters after graduation were purely motivated for intellectual reasons and I wanted to test myself academically in a way I haven’t been tested yet, I never considered it as a real option until the end of my fourth year. Part of the reason behind this was because I knew I couldn’t afford it. In the last couple of years of my undergraduate studies, I developed a keener interest towards an intersectional analysis of law while working with leading academicians and policymakers at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance, and over the course of time, I became quite excited about the prospects of immersing fully into research and teaching. Having coordinated and undertaken tutorial sessions for junior batches for more than four years at law school as a part of the Academic Support Programme, this wasn’t however a huge personal surprise.

In time, the decision to apply for Masters Programme at Schwarzman College and at Oxford was very natural, as my course preferences at both these Universities, in their own unique ways, offered a fascinating breadth and quite literally, the best of both academic and practical worlds. This diversity in terms of modules and people was a crucial decision-making factor, not to mention the fact that it was always a dream to study at an institution which is older than Aztecs!

  1. How does it feel to be the only Indian law student to be conferred with the Rhodes scholarship in the year 2019. Could you please briefly tell us the procedure for applying for this prestigious scholarship and what all aspects must be kept in mind before applying and during the application procedure?

Well, Rhodes is much more than just a ‘scholarship’, and the chance to be awarded one is definitely an opportunity of a lifetime. After a brief moment of complete disbelief, I was truly elated to hear my name called by the India Secretary Nandan Kamath, followed by a stark realisation of the immense responsibility it entails. One of the greatest privileges of the Scholarship is an opportunity to join a community of incredibly thoughtful, talented and active scholars across the globe. Nevertheless, any opportunity of that scale is only as much as you make of it.

In terms of the application process – the procedure requires a statement of purpose, six letters of recommendation, a two-page resume and an elaborate application form to be submitted, which usually opens in the first week of June every year. The technicalities of the process are very well explained on the Rhodes website here and I would suggest every applicant to take their time to go through the website. Rhodes India constituency also take a lot of efforts to balance the information asymmetry and has created a Google group which any applicant can access to have their queries and doubts solved.

Coming to the pre application aspects, the committee looks for a candidate who can clearly demonstrate the four criteria of the scholarship (mentioned in Cecil Rhodes’ will) through their application: intellectual capacity, ability to use your energy to the full, ability to empathise with and protect the weak and moral force of character and instincts to lead. No two applications are the same, and you shouldn’t try and emulate how an “ideal” SOP would look like, rather make a cogent and compelling case for how you would fit into the criteria that the Rhodes envisages. That said, it is also important to be able to justify a genuine love for scholarship – a criteria the University of Oxford may take into consideration at the time of the Masters application. So, it is helpful to think through some questions before embarking on the application journey –how your personal goals interact with the ideals of the scholarship, what you want to gain out of the Rhodes, and why you wish to join Oxford.

For those early into the law school, if there is a genuine yearning for learning, you are likely to tread on the right path, and it is not required to design your CV in a way to suit the requirements for the Rhodes, or any other scholarship for that matter.

  1. You have also been conferred with Schwarzman scholarship which means that you will be pursuing a Masters’ programme from the Tsinghua University. Could you please briefly tell us the procedure for applying for this prestigious scholarship and what all aspects must be kept in mind before applying and during the application procedure?

The Schwarzman scholarship is a highly selective programme for a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, with acceptance rates less than 3%. Founded by American philanthropist and Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, the Scholarship is based on the mission of fostering leadership that responds to the geopolitical needs of the 21st Century.

The application process for the Schwarzman Scholars programme is very elaborate, and again described quite succinctly on their website here. A high-level criteria for the scholarship is based on three pillars – international relations, interest in China and leadership. A typical application requires a curriculum vitae, academic transcripts, a statement of purpose, a leadership essay, three letters of recommendation, a brief biography and a one-minute introductory video. Global applications for the next cohort open more than sixteen months before the beginning of the course, and are due by last week of September every year. Post the initial screening process, the semi-final interviews are conducted for shortlisted candidates at four locations: Bangkok, London, New York and Beijing and approximately 140 scholars are selected after an intense screening process comprising of heads of states, diplomats, economists, academicians, policymakers and practitioners. For the sixth cohort, the applications are open now.

Quite similar to the Rhodes criteria, the Schwarzman programme also values honesty and your essays are a chance to present a coherent narrative of your own unique self, your aspirations and the role of the programme in fulfilling them. Apart from strong academic abilities, the committee places great importance on leadership potential, so it is helpful to reinforce the candidate’s profile as a young leader in his/her field/culture. I must add here that leadership does not only refer to ‘founding a student organisation’ or ‘taking on an influential role’, irrespective of them being perceived as most viable ways. It is unique to one’s own personal challenges and circumstances and should depict an ability to take initiative, challenge status quo, envision solutions and inspire others.

  1. What is your opinion on the contribution of your family, friends, and peer group and faculty members in your stupendous and unprecedented achievements?

No effort is truly personal. I think every achievement is a collective act, and there are always people ‘behind the curtains’ who support, guide, inspire and push you towards your goals. I was blessed to have a very encouraging family, a bunch of great friends who made me a better person every day, an inspiring cohort of 190 students who have done some very remarkable things and pushed me to work harder at all times, and many wonderful Professors who never hesitated to take time out of their schedules to sit down and guide me, often with the most silly questions!

  1. What are your future plans like, would you be pursuing a masters’ programme from Oxford or from Tsinghua University?

I’ll be pursuing a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University followed by post graduate studies in law at University of Oxford. At Oxford, I intend to study the impact of new technologies in finance from a humanities perspective and explore the causal link between the role of finance in resolving poverty and inequality by developing economically viable regulatory models that can help in eradicating such problems.

  1. Lastly, if you have any advice for the students who are either looking to pursue law as a career or to those who are already pursuing but just like you want to pursue masters in law from reputed universities.

My short message is that all of us hold exceptional talents within us, which may or may not go unnoticed. Identifying your true potential is a journey laced with several trial and errors, but it is also the journey of immense personal development, one that is worth pursuing.

Insofar as applications for LLMs/scholarships are concerned, there is quite honestly no single formula. All applications are unique and there are many different ways to be successful. The selection panels are equipped to identify ‘well-rounded individuals’ with a balanced set of academic, co-curriculars and extra-curricular achievements. Having said that, the statement of purpose and recommendation letters are documents which attest your potential and convey your motivations, so I will stress the importance of putting forth a compelling argument in favour of your application. At the same time, you cannot discount an element of luck in these applications, but hard work will always get you somewhere worthwhile.

Lastly, enjoy the process! Law schools can often be very competitive, but as a very dear friend of mine often says, not everything is a measure of ‘success’ – developing personal bonds and immersing in meaningful conversations and cultural exchanges is equally important. Don’t let the contours of the degree define your learning, potential or your limits. As it goes, five years at a law school could define you in different ways, make sure yours is a meaningful one!

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