The Rhodes Scholarship is the most prestigious in the world. But how does it stay relevant? We asked the woman at the organization’s helm.

Elizabeth Kiss has used her personal experience as an inspiration to support the next generation of leaders across the globe. As the daughter of Hungarian refugees who fled to the United States during the second world war, she was able to gain an education thanks to ‘the magic and power of philanthropy and scholarships,’ including a Rhodes Scholarship in the 1980s.

Fast forward to today, Kiss is the Warden and CEO of Rhodes Trust, the world’s oldest global post-graduate fellowship. Before joining Rhodes, she served as the founding director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, and for 12 years she was the president of Agnes Scott College in Georgia, USA.

So what makes the Rhodes Scholarship one of the most transformative and prestigious programs in the world? What are the gaps and opportunities moving forward?

At the 2019 J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum in Hong Kong, Jean Sung, Head of The Philanthropy Centre for Asia, spoke with Kiss to understand more about what’s at the heart of the Scholarship.

For over 116 years, Rhodes Scholarship provides funding for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

“Not mere bookworms,” was the brief given by the scholarship’s namesake, Cecil John Rhodes, when he established the initiative by a directive in his will.

“Cecil did something quite extraordinary through his estate,” says Kiss.

“He had the idea that you could bring young people together who were not only academically talented.”

Rather, the scholarship is looking for people with an instinct “to lead sympathy for the weak … and an energy to use their talents to the full.” The young scholars are those who have the compassion and capacity to change the world. Many have become world’s top leaders in various fields.

Indeed, a Rhodes Scholarship is a gateway to the highest echelons of leadership. Analysis from McKinsey & Co. concluded that recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship are 10 times more likely to become a head of state or win a Nobel Prize, when compared with graduates of an Ivy League institution.

While the scholarships were for many years only available to men and limited to Commonwealth countries, the Rhodes Trust has been reinterpreting the original mission for the 21st century.

“I'm most passionate about furthering our global reach and vision,” said Kiss. “I'm especially passionate about developing character, cross-cultural understanding and collaborative skills of our Scholars, not just while they’re in Oxford, but also throughout their whole lives.”

“We live in a world where there are many forces pulling people apart, forces against global alliance and unity,” said Kiss.

“I feel that we have to stand against that and deeply engage our scholars to be a force within Oxford and within the world for greater diversity, greater inclusion and greater engagement with these important issues.”

For many years, the Rhodes Scholarship has been available to citizens of Hong Kong – and three years ago was launched in China. Within Asia, scholars also come from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Asked whether there are requirements for Rhodes Scholars to return to their home country upon completion of their postgraduate studies, Kiss explains that the program intentionally avoids such conditions. 

“One of our Rhodes Scholars from Africa is president of Amnesty International, and was president of Greenpeace before that.”

“He cares deeply about his home country of South Africa,” said Kiss, “but he feels that he can actually do more for South Africa from a global platform.”

The list of Rhodes Scholar alumni is impressive. Former President Bill Clinton, Australian Prime Ministers Hawke and Turnbull, Pakistan President Wasim Sajjad and numerous Nobel laureates have received the award.

But for Kiss, achieving the greatest impact for a society requires a shift in approach.     

“I have a particular passion for women's education,” said Kiss. 

“If you want to attain economic development, the greatest impact or the greatest ROI is if you educate girls and women,” she said.

“It is women that then go on to change families and change communities.”

In an era when many of the world’s best university courses are available for free to anyone with an internet connection, it is fair to question the merit of a postgraduate scholarship program that takes time away from family in a far country.   

But for Kiss, the most profound outcomes of the scholarship experience are the result of personal interactions.

“We are embodied creatures,” she said. “We are creatures who look for emotional affective signals from one another. We have to work with our hands and communicate with our hearts.”

Kiss cites Aristotle and Confucius, who believed that you learn ethics through practice. 

“We need education to impart knowledge and to teach skills, but that’s not enough,” said Kiss, “particularly at our age when information explosion often outpaces our ability to consider the application of knowledge for ourselves, for humanity, for society.”

“I believe the way you nurture the whole person has to be through role models, through creating a culture and ethos where you're inspiring and challenging young people.”

To learn more about what has been discussed at the J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum, please contact your J.P. Morgan team.