When did it first occur to you to apply to Oxford? What were you doing then and what sort of changes were you seeking in deciding to apply for your masters in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance?

I had been leading two major projects: social enterprise to create employment opportunities for women in Nepal and a network of diverse women to create spaces for women and young girls to talk about tabooed issues related to bodies, gender and sexuality. The social enterprise, part of a larger non-profit called Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), wanted to realize a climate-smart world with creative and sustainable solutions. In order to develop green employment opportunities, I launched and operated stores to promote local green products made by women entrepreneurs. I trained, mentored and engaged youths in discourses to reimagine what development should look like in Nepal and led campaigns to reduce the consumption of disposable plastic bags. My activism and social entrepreneurial experience opened my eyes to larger cross-cutting issues, especially between women and the environment. To explore such interconnectedness, between social and environmental structures, and gain knowledge I can use to design policies and projects at the intersection of these domains, I decided to apply to the NSEG program.

The challenges you mentioned, and the solutions you pioneered, attest to both a socio-ethical and an entrepreneurial dimension, two of the keystones of the WHT leadership programme. How much did you know about this part of the programme before starting? What did you appreciate most of the first seminars and how do you hope they will further your understanding of the women-environment nexus?

“My activism and social entrepreneurial experience opened my eyes to larger cross-cutting issues, especially between women and the environment.” – Bivishika Bhandari

What drew me to the WHT program were the Moral Philosophy Seminars, the Enterprise Challenge, and the opportunity to collaborate with scholars from diverse backgrounds on sustainable solutions. From the first few seminars, I realized that most of us, despite the different backgrounds, are trying to solve similar problems: unemployment, illiteracy, women’s empowerment and a whole gamut of issues caused by climate change. All of us quickly came to realize that innovation could be accelerated with the combination of the perspectives we acquired in our respective countries and cultures.

What factors do you think helped your application most, directly or indirectly?

I believe that what helped me most was the experience of various leadership positions in initiatives that created impact on the ground: creating safe spaces and employment opportunities for women, engaging in policy changes related to environment. They allowed me to put into practice what I had studied as a student of Gender and Women’s Studies at Hollins University, USA. Furthermore, I embodied the values that I learnt in school and at work: I campaigned to make women-friendly constitution in Nepal, for mothers to be able to give citizenship to their children, I became vegetarian. Finally, I took a long break after my undergraduate studies to build my experiences in the real world before coming back to academia. After six years of work experience, I had a very clear idea about what I needed to advance my expertise and increase my contribution to my community.

How typical or untypical is it for people in your community to study for a masters degree in a world renown university? How can your individual experience affect them?

It is quite rare for a Nepali person to get accepted into an educational institution like the University of Oxford and even rare get accepted into a leadership program like WHT. There are probably only a handful of Nepalese scholars who have graduated from Oxford and each one of them is engaged in impactful work. I have received a lot of encouraging messages from many young people in Nepal, they too see themselves in my shoes, they too are now able to envision learning in the world’s top university. They are motivated and will passionately work towards that vision. I also know that many community members have high hopes and expectations for me. So, as much as I know that I have to develop myself, I also know that I bear the responsibility of helping to develop my community.

Your academic, activist and professional trajectory show an outstanding determination to bring about change in the world. It also shows a mutually beneficial alternance between theory and practice. For the young people in Nepal or South East Asia following you, who are not as certain yet about their paths, which organisations, working at the interface of nature and society, would you suggest they join or volunteer in?

There are countless organizations that are working to address environmental issues. I suggest first engaging in local grassroot movement and activism. We often forget that, although the problems of climate change are global, we face their consequences right where we live.

Of the things you’ve seen in Oxford so far, the places you’ve visited and the people you’ve met, can you name 3-4 things that make you hopeful you’ll reach the objectives you had in starting this year?

First, the WHT leadership program and the WHT family and larger network, who set the best tone to start the year at Oxford with the Moral Philosophy Seminar and Enterprise Challenge. We were given a lot of networking and learning opportunities, especially over dinners with alums, experts, leaders and donors. Most importantly, the WHT scholars in my cohort are probably the most inspiring bunch you can meet at Oxford and likely to end up as best friends and a support system.
Second, the NSEG department at the School of Geography and the Environment will give me a rounded and holistic picture of the connections between social institutions and the environment. The students (past and present) are very supportive and we are sharing notes and words of encouragements throughout the year. My cohort’s one rule for the year is “divide and collaborate.”
Last, the talks and events organized by different societies and departments, including my college Mansfield, will give me an exposure to a wide variety of subject matters adding to my knowledge.

Can you give an example of WHT scholars in your or previous cohorts whose stories and experiences inspire you or you believe can positively impact your goals?

WHT alumna Irina Fedorenko from Russia really inspired me to apply to the WHT program. She has incubated two startups, one of which is called Kindness Collective and works on plant based natural detergents. I could see the effects of workshops like the Enterprise Challenge, which is also something I hope to internalize through the WHT Challenge.

This year’s cohort is also equally inspiring. The scholars have already been engaged in shaping their countries’ economies, running green businesses, solving pressing health-care issues, transforming education systems, raging against climate crisis, and much more. Getting to know each one of my fellow scholars, already my very best friends, was the perfect way to start the year at Oxford.

WHT in a sentence?

WHT Scholarship and the Leadership Program is one of the only programs at Oxford that enables future leaders from different parts of the world to co-create a collective vision for the world.

About the Scholar

Bivishika Bhandari

Nature, Society and Environmental Governance (MSc), 2020
Mansfield College, Oxford
Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann Scholar