Hong Kong students encouraged to apply for Rhodes Scholarships

There's more to life than good grades, according to the man running the world's most esteemed academic scholarship, writes Nora Tong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:36am

English businessman Cecil Rhodes, who set up the Rhodes Scholarships, made it crystal clear that the award was never to be given to the "mere bookworm", a principle that has been upheld since 1903.

"This is the most important difference between the Rhodes Scholarships and other scholarships. Many scholarships are based only on academic achievements," says Charles Conn, warden of Rhodes House, and CEO of the Rhodes Trust, which manages the international award designed to bring exceptional individuals to study at Oxford University, with the ultimate aim of promoting international understanding and public duties.

In addition to academic excellence, the Rhodes Scholarships look for young people who show "truthfulness, courage and caring for others", and who have developed their talent to the fullest in areas such as the arts or sport. The scholars should also have "a moral force of character and the instincts to lead", says Conn.

The risk in a place like Hong Kong is that it is too conservative
Charles Conn

"We look for people who have started things or who have led student organisations. We hope they will use the development at Oxford to make the world a better place. Rhodes called it fighting 'the world's fight'," says Conn, himself a Rhodes scholar in the 1980s.

Boasting a long list of illustrious alumni including former US president Bill Clinton and current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the scholarship recruits 83 young people every year from across the world.

The scholars are chosen by the selection committee in each country or region, made up of seven members and consisting of Rhodes scholars as well as prominent members of the society.

The award covers university fees and a stipend for living expenses for two to four years of study at Oxford. The stipend is set at £13,390 (HK$175,000) per annum (2013-14). It also covers travel to and from Oxford at the start and end of tenure, and private health insurance.

"I think we are doing a very good job in picking scholars but we can always be better. I believe we should not only look for people with great talent, but also people who want to make a difference," says Conn.

He adds that it is especially important to identify and nurture young people who are impatient with the way things are and who want change - particularly in a place like Hong Kong where there is palpable parental pressure purely on academics.

"The risk in a place like Hong Kong is that it is too conservative. One of the reasons I come and meet with people is to remind them we are looking for candidates who are willing to take a risk, and not just people who are careerists. We want people who are willing to put themselves out there and not just do what is expected."

It was the desire to give back the way Rhodes scholars are expected to that prompted Conn to take up the wardenship at Rhodes House in 2013. A former partner with McKinsey & Company who later became a senior adviser to the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation in the US, Conn says he enjoys working with young people at his new post. His main job is "pastoral care", which sees him putting on the hat of a counsellor and offering the scholars advice on their career paths and life in general. He meets with the students every term and listens to their troubles, their aspirations and their hopes.

"There can be a lot of cultural shock. People miss their family and friends. And then towards the end of the first year people's world view starts to be transformed. Whether you come from Hong Kong, South Africa, the tribal regions of Pakistan, or a farm in Canada, your world is going to change, how you think about the world is going to change and that can be disorienting. But the whole idea of the scholarship is to be transformative," says Conn.

He often counsels the scholars to take more time to develop a broad set of skills so that they can have an impact no matter what career path they follow. These include basic analytical and problem solving skills, the ability to know yourself and the impact you can have, and the ability to plan your work, and lead and manage. There is no need to agonise over the first job, says Conn. What matters is what you have learned from it.

"Scholars often have a very binary view of their career. Either I'm doing good or becoming commercial. That's silly. The world is very much intertwined now. It's very common for people to have four or five careers. I'm 50 years old and I'm on my fourth career now," says Conn.

He encourages students in Hong Kong to apply for the Rhodes Scholarships. "A lot of people self-select. They think it requires perfect grades. It doesn't. You have to have good grades, a GPA of at least 3.7. We are much more interested in looking for people with a spark and the desire to make a difference."

While it is important to look for a good job, Conn says young people should contemplate what else they can do to make the world a better place, whether in science, medicine, journalism, teaching or other aspects.

"Don't be in such a hurry to get a job. Build the skills you need. Go beyond making a living. Make a life. How do we do that? That comes from your values and caring for others and caring for the planet," he says.

How to apply

• Applicants must be no younger than 19 years of age and no older than 25 on October 1, 2015

• Applications close on September 26, 2014

• Apply online at

• The interview has two parts: a cocktail and dinner the evening before the main interview, with the interview the following day

• For details, visit or contact Jeremy Woodall, administrator of the Rhodes Scholarship in Hong Kong, tel: 2151 3877; email:


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