Yomna Zentani (far left) and Jacqui Cho (center left)JACQUI CHO

When Jacqui Cho and her group of ambitious friends were embarking on their degrees at Cambridge, they had no idea about the barriers they would have to break, and the transformative impact their determination would have on the lives of students from zones of conflict.

Flash forward a few years, and they helped set up a scholarship for students from zones of conflicts. Jacqui now works for the United Nations.

Initially, while believing that education can open new doors for those who have had their education disrupted by conflict, seeing something like the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship (RWCS) being established, for Jacqui, seemed an unattainable dream. However, her passion and help from other equally committed students and fellows was what would eventually manifest into RWCS, which has now led to an inspiring platform for Rowan Williams scholars to share their own stories.

The RWCS supports around ten students, annually, who have faced severe educational barriers due to conflict, instability and other political and humanitarian reasons to study at the University of Cambridge.

Campaigning for the cause, however, was far from easy. A pivotal moment for the Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Campaign was when, in May 2018, they were contacted by a Syrian offer-holder, Abdullah Katineh. Despite pushing through multiple glass ceilings and obtaining an offer from Cambridge, Abdullah was lacking funding and would not be able to begin his studies at Cambridge.

Responding to this, CRSC, with CUSU, wrote an open-letter to the University asking for their support. The letter gained over 600 signatures in just two days, and shortly afterwards, the student received news of full funding. Abdullah went on to read Natural Sciences at Corpus Christi.

In a subsequent meeting with the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and other University officials, the University committed to providing around 10 scholarships a year for students from refugee/war-torn backgrounds; a first testament to the groundbreaking work done by CRSC.

Crucially, despite it seeming like an uphill battle, Jacqui was adamant on allowing people from conflict-affected countries, who were not already residing in Britain, to be eligible for this scholarship and hopes to inspire other universities to do the same. This was one of the battles that Yomna Zentani, a Libyan citizen who benefitted from this scheme and is now a driving force behind the newly launched website, was forced to face when applying for scholarships in other universities.

Yomna had always wanted to pursue postgraduate studies and explained how disheartening it was to stumble upon scholarships aimed at students who shared her background, but were limited to those who have already gained entry into the UK. She shared how uplifting it was to initially see efforts made by universities to increase diversity and inclusion but felt as though her claims to education were being hindered. Despite sharing the background, trauma and experiences of someone from a war-torn background, she was still on the outside looking in, as an international student educated abroad. That was until she stumbled across the Rowan Williams Studentship, which allowed for people from conflict areas to access a Cambridge education.

“What is unique about this studentship is that it is open to all students from zones of conflict, regardless of whether they are recognized refugees in the UK or not.”

Subsequently, the Rowan Williams Studentship received over fifty eligible applicants in its first year, emphasising the demand for accessible education, and showing the University the importance of this cause. The Rowan Williams Studentship allowed Yomna to tell her story and pursue her academic goals, alongside nine other students who shared her ambitions.

Highlighting the importance of widening inclusion, Yomna explained that “what is unique about this studentship is that it is open to all students from zones of conflict, regardless of whether they are recognized refugees in the UK or not and enables them to apply for funding to access further education.” Of course, where there is progression, there is always more to be done. The lack of initial awareness about the unique experiences and burdens that recipients of this scholarship might carry has been identified as an obstacle, and led to a disparity in support at both the student and collegiate level. CRSC continues to work to ensure that adequate support structures for scholars are in place once they arrive at Cambridge.

Embarking on her MPhil in African Studies in the same year that Yomna was pursuing her Master of Law, Jacqui was able to view the tangible, positive outcome of her perseverance, and become part of the Rowan Williams community that she helped to welcome into Cambridge. Jacqui and Yomna’s time together at Cambridge resulted in their amazing new initiative: a collaborative outlet for Rowan Williams Scholars and a platform for such scholars to share their stories.

“We owe it to the Rowan Williams scholars of the past to keep spreading their word about making Cambridge a more accessible dream for refugees.”

This website, and campaign, targets a very unique gap in accessing further education and we, as students, owe it to Jacqui, Yomna and the Rowan Williams scholars of the past, present and future to keep spreading the word about their cause, and joining them in their plight to make Cambridge a more accessible dream for refugees and people from war-torn backgrounds.

A group of Rowan Williams scholarsYOMNA ZENTANI

By creating this website, Jacqui and Yomna hope that this would send a message of courage, strength and hope to future applicants and nudge them to apply. They also bring real stories and faces to the narrative around students from conflict areas and add nuance to our stereotypes of what that might be. While shedding light on the pressures that come with being from such backgrounds at such a renowned institution, they also offer glimpses into truer – perhaps messier but beautifully complicated – realities of resilient students from difficult backgrounds; it provides a narrative that is much-needed.

Looking towards the future, Jacqui currently works at UN OCHA’s Regional Office in Nairobi, helping to respond to people in need who are living amidst the many forgotten crises in Southern and Eastern Africa. After completing her Master of Law at Cambridge, Yomna is now focusing her efforts on future projects to encourage diversity in the legal profession. Collaboratively, both Jacqui and Yomna spoke of their dream in turning their powerful website into a book, and are constantly searching for more ways in which they can spread awareness for the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship.

I urge you to explore the Letters from Rowan Williams Cambridge Scholars website and read their stories.  May these stories gain the audience they deserve.