UT graduate and first female transgender Rhodes Scholar Hera Jay Brown follows passion for refugee advocacy

Gabriela Szymanowska, The Daily Beacon

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CMG) The University of Tennessee’s ninth Rhodes Scholar and the first ever female transgender Rhodes Scholar has been chasing her passions far and wide across the globe.

Hera Jay Brown’s interest in studying forced migration and following her passion of helping refugees find a new place to call home has taken her to countries like Jordan, Germany, Malta and Belgium.

And she’s not done following her dreams yet.

Brown’s next stop will take her to England where she will study at the University of Oxford next fall. For Brown, the fact that she will be learning from the very researchers she has looked up to still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

“Dr. Alexander Betts is really someone that I have looked up to a long time and now to have the opportunity to go study with him, one of the world’s leading scholars in the field, is really, really incredible,” Brown said. “It still just feels very surreal to know that I have this opportunity to continue my passions, to have the privilege of sitting around and thinking about the big issues that I’m really, really passionate about.”

She added that she hopes her upcoming project will give her some time to think about her next step in life, as well.

“I’m going to use this time as an incubator to prepare for the next jump in life that’s going to be more focused and dedicated advocacy with refugee communities,” Brown said.

Brown, who is originally from Corryton, Tennessee, graduated from UT in 2018 with Summa Cum Laude honors and in Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. While at UT, Brown was a Haslam Scholar and in the College Scholars program, where she designed her own degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Migration Studies.

Brown was involved with many social activism groups and entities on campus, including Campus Events Board, Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, Sex Week and Pursuit,” UT’s journal of undergraduate research.

Director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships Andrew Seidler met Brown in 2015 and has seen Brown grow during her time at UT.

“She always had a core sense in what she believed in and the things she wanted to do, in particular leadership and scholarship around refugee issues with the United States and globally,” Seidler said.

Seidler explained that Brown truly is a remarkably unique individual.

“She’s one of the most truly driven students that I’ve known, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time with her, working on different applications over time … she’s just persistent,” Seidler said. “In addition to being really bright, that almost goes without saying, [she’s] a really special person.”

In addition to being the ninth Rhodes Scholar from UT, Brown is also the first transgender woman to become a Rhodes Scholar. And while she and the LGBTQ+ community are thrilled for this step into increased representation, Brown said that her election to the Rhodes scholarship is not the end of the road.

“I think there’s so much more work to be done … right now, black transwomen are the most marginalized and targeted communities in the nation and that, yes, while I am thrilled about my election, people can’t see this as an end point,” Brown said. “There’s still so much to do, and I encourage people to think critically about people that are facing marginalization and transness.”

Once Brown has completed her time at Oxford, where she aims to expand her cultural and geographic background of the Middle East, she plans on returning to the U.S. to get her law degree.

Brown explained that in the U.S. immigration system, legal representation isn’t provided to refugees. So, refugees have to defend themselves, and there are instances where five-year-old refugees are forced to support their cases with only the help of a translator.

On the other hand, Brown explained that there are some areas where lawyers will have to bring in cultural experts like anthropologists and sociologists with extensive background knowledge of certain countries who can validate the refugees’ claims. However, it is not always possible to have cultural experts on hand because it’s expensive to ask people to assist and to fly them in.

So, with the geographic and cultural background she plans to focus on at Oxford and her legal degree, Brown said she then hopes to start a legal firm with others who could fuse the varying areas of expertise into one.

“So that when we go before an immigration judge, we’re not only a legal expert,” Brown said, “but we’re also a cultural and geographic expert that can help smooth out the inconsistencies that the judge may not be able to see.”

Wherever her passions take her, Seidler said that he sees a bright future for Brown and in her representing UT on a big platform.

“I think she’s going to be a name that we hear about in the future. I think that she is destined for leadership, and I don’t necessarily mean that we’ll be hearing from her in the sense of because she’ll be grabbing the microphone to be heard, just for the sake of being heard,” Seidler said. “But she is a courageous person, a person who has ideas about where the world is and where it can be and I think that she’s unafraid to put herself out there.”

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