‘This house believes countries should restrict immigration to preserve national culture’

The WHT Annual Debate room in the Oxford Town Hall. Pic: Laura Stewart

Reflections on the 2019 Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust scholar debate.

A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.” – Nelson Mandela  

To debate one must put to the test three liberal arts essentials for leadership and for putting forth ideas: grammar, logic and rhetoric. However, as Mandela points out, the motive for debating must be more profound than merely winning. In engaging in a debate, the aim is to challenge your assumptions and to critically assess the arguments of your opponent. The goal is not only to be understood, but to understand, and at the end to emerge more united with your opponent.


Going through the scripted components of our debate one last time.  Pic: Kapil Yadav

The Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust debate gave the scholars an incredible opportunity. We could leave the ivory tower and take our thoughts and ideas to the streets. The debate took place in a public forum, the Oxford Town Hall, and allowed us to engage with the people of the wonderful town we get to call home for one magical year.

From the beginning we set out to make the most of this unique opportunity. As we began to plan the event, it was critical that the topic of discussion was something that truly mattered to the people of Oxford. A topic that people were divided on. One where it was important to understand and engage with the arguments of the opposing side, so that both parties could become closer and emerge stronger.

Naturally, our minds turned to the decision made in the UK on the 23rd of June 2016 that has not stopped making headlines world-wide since. Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU). One key factor that influenced that decision was the high rate of immigration from an enlarged EU. Alexandra Henderson, Director of WHT, aptly pointed out that it would be helpful to connect two key issues of the EU debate, national culture and immigration. This led to the choice of topic: “This house believes that countries should restrict immigration to preserve national culture.”

The scholars distributed all the tasks and took on the roles necessary to make the event a success, including marketing, PR, debating, IT and logistics. I won’t mention all the names, as it will eat into my word count. However, I must say that Zuzana Hlavkova’s impeccable leadership meant that we arrived at the day of the debate with trained and effective speakers, technology that facilitated participation from the crowd and, most importantly, a full house.

I really enjoyed that we set a really challenging proposition for ourselves. I loved the questions and provocations we got from the audience — it showed they were engaged and eager to participate.” – Claudio Gonzalez, WHT Scholar

I was excited to have the opportunity to participate as a debater. However, it is important to note that I seldom speak in public because it terrifies me. In the past I have even become physically ill and not been able to sleep for several nights before a speech. Yet, a strong conviction drove me to participate. Let me explain. I wish to improve the condition of the most vulnerable in urban areas. Several examples come to mind such as making water, hygiene and sanitation accessible and improving air quality. I know that systemic change is necessary and that having a position of influence will allow me to reach my goal. But having a position of influence comes with a responsibility – I must speak on behalf of those who have no voice. This year at Oxford, I am seeking out opportunities to get better at public speaking and at defending my ideals. What better forum then a debate at Oxford Town Hall!

WHT provided the resources for incredibly useful training sessions that were run by two former world debating champions. The rest was up to us. Six scholars volunteered to participate as debaters and we were randomly assigned to the proposition and opposition of the motion. I wish I could take you into the backroom conversations where we thoroughly enjoyed the critical discussion as friends on a topic that mattered to us. It was a privilege to spend those preciously thought-provoking hours with my fellow scholars. What I can do, however, is give you a glimpse of the outcome.

Here are a few of our favorite quotes from the speeches:

Proposition

“It is important to note that we are operating under the premise that all national cultures are equally valuable and that not one national culture is better than another.” – Francisco Obando

“Complete adaptation to the local culture rarely happens and to cope, links are maintained with their homeland through family, friends, and social and cultural networks that reach across borders.” – Lizaveta Trakhalina

“Be proud of your language, your scientific achievements, literature, food but be equally ashamed of your failures as a culture, as a nation. Have a sober appreciation of your culture then be intoxicated with it.”  – Kapil Yadav


Lizaveta Trakhalina responds a tough question from the crowd. Pic: Laura Aristizabal

Opposition

“However, culture is never enough reason for government to prevent individuals from pursuing their better lives.” – Simonetta Spavieri

“We can take a narrow and ethnic-based view of national culture which is inherently unstable or we can take an inclusive and civic-based view of national culture that expounds common values and traditions.” – Claudio Gonzalez

“As long as there is any interaction with the outside world, directly, or through the media, culture will change.” – Grace Mzumara

Our mission was accomplished. Based on the results of the poll taken at the beginning and the end of the debate, the proposition was able to change the minds of about 10% of the audience. I was told that was a technical victory for the proposition. I think we were all winners that day. We put ourselves in the shoes of another person. It was uncomfortable but necessary to reach an understanding. One thing we have some control over in this chaotic world is striving to understand each other and we did just that.

I will leave you with a few comments from the audience. Maybe you have your own. Go ahead and discuss them with somebody who disagrees!

“How is limiting migration different from racial segregation?” – anonymous member of the crowd.

“What about countries which base their national identity on immigration and multiple identities (ie. Canada)?” – anonymous member of the crowd

About the Scholar

Francisco Obando

Ecuador
International Health and Tropical Medicine (MSc), 2019
Wolfson College, Oxford
Oxford-Hoffmann Scholar
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WHT and Chevening – Thank you from Laos

“Thank you, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust and Chevening, for giving me the chance to break out of my comfort zone”

My name is Aditta. I am from Laos and honoured to be the first Weidenfeld-Hoffmann-Chevening Scholar from my country. I also have the peculiar title of being the first person from my country to have a Facebook account. It should come as no surprise that, for almost a decade now, I’ve been working in the marketing and media sector in Laos, inevitably requiring a frequent and intimate use of Facebook. In my role as an observer and participant to the platform since December 2004, I have witnessed its evolution from an obscure social networking site to an all-encompassing media powerhouse that has taken my country, and many others, by storm.

I believed early on that the ‘Facebook phenom’, especially in many emerging markets, would have serious implications in the future of the Internet: I knew that I had to understand it. While searching for the best place to study the Internet, every search engine query led me to The Oxford Internet Institute.

Frankly-speaking, after ten years of intense but stable corporate life, I also wanted to step out of my comfort zone. I wanted to learn new things, to meet new people and believe me, I got what I wished. Allow me to share a little anecdote – which brings the point home nicely.

At a college “formal” dinner one evening, I was remarking on the intensity and lengths of Oxford readings during a conversation with another student and I was comparing it to the readings from other universities in the UK – one of my friends at another university said that his readings for the entire term for one course was approximately 10 pages. I said: “my reading list itself is 10 pages.”, to which a college advisor (not mine) replied, “If you had wanted an easy time, you should have gone to Harvard.”

555.

(That’s how we, Lao netizens, express laughter. The Lao word for the number five is translated as “HA.” Three “HA’s” make HAHAHA. Therefore, 555 was essentially the Lao version of LOL (laugh out loud)).

But I digress.

Back to comfort zones. My country and I have one thing in common – we are too complacent in the way we manage our life and our nation and we are beginning to witness and experience things that we are not prepared for, namely, the digital revolution and all that this entails. Social media and other internet platforms have a tendency to show us what we want to see, but it does not show us what we should be seeing. I was afraid of living in a filter bubble – an echo chamber of my very own making.

I knew that we as a people needed to better understand the rest of the world to prepare us for its coming challenges. To do that, we need to step out of our comfort zones, break our echo chambers and expose ourselves to new ways of thinking so that we don’t get left behind.

This is what the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann-Chevening Scholarship has done for me; it has given me the chance to voluntarily expose myself to new concepts, to challenge some of my deepest internal biases, to consider the stark inconsistencies in some of my thought processes and to question my implicit moral foundations. I would have expected nothing less from Oxford.

Aditta, Mohsin and Alfredo at the Drop-in lunch

Among those that have contributed to opening my eyes, have been my WHT cohort which consists of some of the most fascinating, talented and ambitious scholars of this generation. For example; the ‘astute Antonio’, a conscientious policymaker from Argentina who traces his roots and heritage to Korea and who challenged my views on national identity; the ‘doughty Dana’, an education expert who is passionate for social change and committed to sharing only the most constructive criticism; ‘learned Lizaveta’, who is well-versed in legal affairs and whose reflections on her own moral positions inspired me to revisit mine; ‘kinetic Kapil’, with a kind heart for the environment, who speaks his mind while entertaining us all and teaching us to remember that we are all young at heart; ‘zealous Zamiyat’, a champion of women’s rights, who gives voice to the unheard females of her country and beyond; ‘sophisticated Saadia’, whose empathy and compassion for her people inspires us all to think about our very common ancestry and humanity (Saadia also heads a non-profit called Project Daastan, an Urdu word meaning story, which bears a striking resemblance to the Lao word for story, Nitan); ‘ambitious Alfredo’, who valiantly fights for human rights and against abuses of power; ‘benevolent Busan’ who is equal parts brilliant and spirited about grass-roots participation and good governance; ‘mindful Mohsin’, a doctor-cum-entrepreneur who is as caring of people as he is careful with words; and ‘legendary Laura’, a lawyer who showed me that famous internet celebrities like herself are in no way self-serving or vain, but in fact quick-witted, thought-provoking, and honest.

I’m incredibly glad to call these amazing souls and others, my friends. And yes, not only on Facebook.

I would like to convey my greatest appreciation to the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann-Chevening Scholarship for helping me to step out of my comfort zone, to expose me to some of the richest and most challenging ideas, to meet the best of the new generation’s talent – an experience we all need to have if we are to become stronger, better and build a future that is inclusive, tolerant and just; for all.

About the Scholar

Aditta Kittikhoun

Laos
Social Science of the Internet (MSc), 2019
Green Templeton College, Oxford
Weidenfeld-Hoffmann/Chevening Scholar
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Young Voices of Hope – WHT in Davos

Shortly after arriving in Zurich – hopeful, inspired and ready to host our panel.

Participating at the WHT side event to the World Economic Forum, was about first; being inspired, second; overcoming fears and prejudices and third; opening my heart to a hope in a better future.

Being inspired.

The preparation process was an incredibly nurturing learning experience. We were asked to combine our personal stories with a subject we felt passionately about, by doing this I got to know better some of my fellow scholars and alumni. I was inspired to hear from Ramon and Atherton who at early ages lost one or both parents and have devoted their lives to improving conditions of education in Mexico and health access in Africa, in a bid to do justice to the legacy of their beloved ones. I also learnt of the struggle of my fellow scholar and friend, Dana, who has decided to work towards women empowerment in Jordan; She explained to us the paradox of women not taking part of the workforce despite having equal or even better qualifications. Kapil, June and Cedric described their encounters with environmental degradation and poverty in rural India, Kenya and Zimbabwe, and how that pushed them to act. Irina told us how she has always been an environmental entrepreneur, from her upbringings in Vladivostok to her current work through a company she co-founded, Carbon Engineering.

Prior to our trip, we met in London to practice and receive advice from communication experts at AGL. Just hearing these stories and those of the rest of the team, interacting and learning from each other, made me feel inspired and humbled. Going to Davos was almost secondary to this, but it put us together and made us pour honesty and passion into words.

Overcoming fears and prejudice.

Sharing a message from Venezuela with leaders from across the globe!

The World Economic Forum at Davos is a controversial place, particularly for those who, like me, are conscious that lock-in into our unsustainable development paths is easily traceable to decisions of those attending this event. Furthermore, those of us suffering from the all too common Oxford disease – the impostor syndrome – are still coming to terms with the shock of leaving our demanding developing world surroundings to be immersed in the stimulating and at times overbearing Oxford environment. We frequently ask ourselves if we belong in this ‘hotspot’ of world intellectuals? Imagine, only to be invited to Davos? What role could we possibly play there?

I found that there was a genuine interest in listening to ‘real and fresh’ young speakers. I also found that there is not one Davos, but multiple ones, with different levels of access and with buzzing events taking place at multiple locations where stimulating conversations take place. My prejudice was in finding ‘self-patting’, accomplished leaders, that were unwilling to lead the transformations required at the local level. However, although I cannot generalize from my experience, I can say that the atmosphere at the WHT event was of conscious philanthropists and leaders across sectors who wished to be challenged and were willing to take risk and invest in change. . .

Hope in a better future.

On returning to Oxford, here with my fellow WHT Scholar, Laura Aristizabal, and another Oxford Grad student who joined in solidarity to call for democratic transition in Venezuela.

My whole pitch for the event was coming from anger and disappointment. I feel that the world is failing on climate action and this is accompanied by a sense of disappointment in how my country -Venezuela- has been allowed to slip into a state of collapse. In fact, our time in Davos coincided with massive protests in Venezuela; backing the path towards a transition to democracy. I felt, in a small way, that my participation in Davos was a contribution to this protest too. I believe the room shared my anger and disappointment. My feeling was that everyone in the room was well-aware of the scale of environmental degradation, there was no denial in the air, there was also no shying away from blame. What there was most was an eagerness for solutions, for answers, for what to do next. I was asked how to create a platform to channel the youth’s anger towards solutions on climate change. I was also asked what could be done about the corrupt Venezuelan elites and the plundering of Venezuela’s oil resources. . .

Ultimately, I found inspiration in the work we managed to produce and in the ideas that my fellow scholars and alumni are already undertaking to solve some of the most pressing issues in their home countries. I was especially moved to find a willing and empathetic crowd of experienced leaders in Davos; equally eager for solutions and to transform our reality. My anger and disappointed seems to have opened the door for some hope of a better future. . .

About the Scholar

Simonetta Spavieri

Venezuela
Environmental Change and Management (MSc), 2019
Pembroke College, Oxford
Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann Scholar
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Hilary Term Collections

Collections

When I think of collections, I used to think of the trinkets of stickers, stamps and marbles that I would collect as a child. Fond memories are conjured up of organising my stickers in categories in the sticker book, caring for my marbles in a big plastic case and stamp club meetings with my sister. At Oxford, “Collections” mean something very different: a meeting at the end of term, at which the student’s progress is discussed. As Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust scholars, we meet with WHT Director Alexandra Henderson and a WHT Academic Adviser, Elizabeth Roberts or Nik Kirby.

A WHT collection is a chance for me to collect my thoughts about what I have done (or should have done) and what steps I need to take in order to reach my goals, both within Oxford and beyond. It is an opportunity to reflect – which, I am guilty of not doing often enough – and regather my thoughts.  To check-in with my academic and psychological well-being.

At the time of writing this piece, I have attended one collection which felt more like a tender conversation with a caring mentor than a formal procedure. My collection experience was open, honest and full of care. I personally have found the Oxford experience taxing in a lot of ways and I have been putting on a brave face, pushing forward to try do what I need to. The collection gave me time to really consider my situation. The support from WHT that I have always appreciated so much was reaffirmed. From the beginning, WHT became a close-knit family, each of us caring and looking out for the well-being of others. When I say “each of us” I am referring not only to the cohort of students but to all the advisors as well as the other members of the WHT team. My collection experience was one where my thoughts were listened to, concerns addressed and hopes re-ignited.

Jade discussing with fellow scholars

I believe that collections are at the heart of WHT’s Programme. They offer real, meaningful, all-round support to the scholars through pragmatic reasoning, practical actions and kindness. I left the collection with the conviction that I can overcome, summit and make my WHT family proud.

About the Scholar

Jade Weiner

South Africa
Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL), 2019
St Anne's College, Oxford
Weidenfeld-Hoffmann/Chevening Scholar
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