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“I have a simple goal,” says Alyssa Mohammed. “I want women to be whatever they want to be. I don’t want any woman to be limited by who she is or where she comes from.”

Alyssa, Rhodes Scholar-elect, has a passion for gender studies. Of 11 applicants, she was named the Rhodes Scholar-elect for 2023, and it has been a whirlwind ever since.

“Any of us could have won,” Alyssa stated when asked what, if anything, set her apart from the other scholars, but her passion for women and gender issues came through in her application and interview process.

Alyssa crossed paths with activism for the first time when she fell in love with Sociology at The UWI Open Campus. A young Muslim woman, she layered her faith with activism to begin her advocacy for the rights of women in Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of her Open Campus programme was conducted online during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the virtual setting provided an opportunity for closer contact and a well-rounded Caribbean perspective on social issues, something that students who attended a single UWI campus in person would have missed out on.

A second home at IGDS

Since then, she has continued on at The UWI, pursuing a postgraduate diploma in Gender Studies at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS), where she has found a second home.

On her experience at IGDS, Alyssa says, “It is so rare to study in a place where activism informs academia and vice versa.”

With lecturers such as Emerita Professor Rhoda Reddock, Dr Sue Ann Barratt (Head of IGDS), and Emerita Professor Patricia Mohammed, to name a few, IGDS is steeped in “passion, talent, tenacity, love, care, and charisma”. And ultimately, support.

Taking a chance at the Rhodes scholarship, the application to which landed in her UWI inbox like many other students, Alyssa did not think that she would be the one to win it. The process was extensive, requiring six references and a number of other steps. Alyssa notes that the encouragement of the lecturers at IGDS was everything she needed to push forward.

Of her generation, she says, “So many of us are so used to getting rejected, we [decide] to just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.” And stick, it did.

However, Alyssa says, “As far as Rhodes scholars go, I don’t necessarily fit that mould. But, that’s one of the great things about the Rhodes scholarship... it gives people opportunities who may not have otherwise [had them].”

The support of family was instrumental

Established in 1902, the Rhodes scholarship is the oldest scholarship in the world and one of the most prestigious. Sponsored by the Rhodes Trust, it is an international postgraduate award affording its recipients the opportunity to study for two years or more at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

The only thing about the scholarship that Alyssa laments is her inability to share the news with her grandfather who passed away late last year.

“It was his dream for all his children and grandchildren to be educated, especially the women.”

The support of her grandfather, mother, and father has been instrumental in Alyssa being the first in her family to pursue postgraduate studies.

With all of this at her back, Alyssa is ready for life at Oxford. Within gender studies, her main area of interest is sexual and reproductive health and rights. This will form the core of the kind of research that she hopes to pursue. She anticipates that the opportunity to study internationally will further develop the regional perspective gained at The UWI, and anchor her interests within the context of the wider world.

She is particularly passionate about the introduction of comprehensive sexuality education into Caribbean schools, and plans to learn about how this is delivered in other contexts, so that the region can reap the benefits.

Ultimately, success at Oxford for Alyssa will look like distinctions in her studies, but more importantly, meaningful experiences with scholars, professors, and industry professionals that alter her perspective.

She notes, “Once you have a perspective shift, you have learned.”

Alyssa intends to continue serving her community through activism, with academia being the force that continues to anchor and inspire her.

When asked what we can do to further equality, her response is simple.

“We need a whole-of-society approach [to gender activism]. Everybody needs to be a feminist in order to win the fight against gender inequality and [in turn] other types of inequality.”

Alyssa is certain that we should all take as many chances as are presented to us. With such a mindset, we cannot wait to see what she does next.

Kanisha Vincent is equal parts sport scientist, storyteller, poet and freelance writer.