In 2019, Hera Jay Brown became the first Transgender woman Rhodes Scholar. Now, she is fully enveloped in her master’s studies at Oxford University across the pond.
Brown graduated from UT in 2018 as a Haslam Scholar with a degree in socio-cultural anthropology and migration studies. Prior to being elected as UT’s ninth Rhodes Scholar, she also received a Fulbright Award, another prestigious recognition.
Brown’s areas of interest focus on issues pertaining to refugees, people seeking asylum and general issues regarding development, and at Oxford, she is pursuing a master’s of philosophy in developmental studies, a program known for its rigorous coursework.
She is particularly interested in studying forced migration in regions of the world such as Jordan, the European Union and the United States and said that her studies at Oxford have been crucial in encouraging her knowledge of the subject.
“The program has been pivotal in expanding and pushing my own understanding of how to think about those issues related to other things, like land acquisition and displacement planning as states engage in mega projects, gender disparities and economics, and so on, and so the program has really facilitated a broader and better view for me to continue the work that I’m passionate about,” Brown said.
The current pandemic has, naturally, complicated the future of Brown’s international studies. For one, she arrived at Oxford in the midst of the pandemic and lockdowns in the United Kingdom, which have only been lifted for brief periods of time since her arrival.
Additionally, she has not been able to work on-site with refugees in other countries, such as Jordan, where she says she would love to eventually visit and work.
“Right now, there are many rightful, ethical concerns about what it means for people — especially when thinking about the global disparity in vaccine distribution and access — what it means for someone, especially a researcher like myself coming from, one, the United States and now being in an elite institution like Oxford, going and engaging in a country that doesn’t have the same kind of levels of access because of historical and colonial and neo-imperial undercurrents that are always at play,” Brown said.
Alternatively, Brown has been focused on engaging with developmental ideas and refugee issues in a more digital context, such as working to engage bureaucracy to make work permits more accessible for refugee families.
Brown is also focused on getting to know the local refugee community by engaging with groups where those populations are represented.
“I’m really wanting to focus on getting to know Oxford and its local texture and context to really try to understand a lot of the issues that are present here, so right now that’s looked like trying to engage in a lot of community organizing and direct action spaces here,” Brown said.
After she completes her master’s degree, Brown plans on entering a Ph.D. program at Oxford before heading to law school.
“I’ve stayed committed to this path, because I really do think this is the way that I can contribute and use the extreme platforms and privileges and privileged platforms to really think about how to push and represent and advocate on behalf of people that are seeking asylum and seeking refuge in the United States,” Brown said.
Brown added that as white woman in an elite academic program, who spoke English as a first language, she was afforded privileges that many in the Trans community don’t have.
“I think that the true power in thinking about liberation comes from the strength of the diversity of the Trans community, thinking about how can we as a community, and with all of our component parts and relationships to other communities, what can be done in solidarity together, what can be done to make sure that the Trans community is accountable to the broad diversity that it has, that it’s not just privileged white women from America that are taking up these elite scholarships, making it seem that liberation is coming when I think all of that has to be inherently contextualized and made accountable to the broader diversity that exists,” Brown said.
Professor Tricia Redeker-Hepner, who founded the Disasters, Displacement and Human Rights Program at UT, mentored Brown during her time as a Vol and spoke very highly of her achievements.
Redeker-Hepner said that she and Brown, along with other UT faculty members, took a trip to Germany to study the refugee crisis in 2015. After the trip, Brown visited Oxford on her own, where she was able to stay with Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and Redeker-Hepner’s colleague.
Redeker-Hepner said that while Brown was constantly working to further her education, the opportunity to be a student at Oxford was particularly important.
“The opportunity to go to Oxford was particularly meaningful because Oxford University has probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous, and certainly one of the earliest, refugee study centers,” Redeker-Hepner said.
Redeker-Hepner said that Brown was a wonderful colleague, both in and out of the classroom.
“She’s the kind of student that every professor dreams of having, and we continued our relationship long after she’s graduated,” Redeker-Hepner said. “She’s as much a friend and a colleague, and I get choked up even thinking about it because I just have so much affection and respect for her.”
Although she has her eyes set on the future, Brown is also determined to take stock of the present moment.
“I think COVID has really demonstrated, for me personally, how quickly and how ephemeral life and the things that we assume we have are taken for granted at times, and so I’m really trying to be present in the degrees and the paths that I’m on right now,” Brown said.