Our Campus: Oxford beckons Fatima Zehra Naqvi, UBC's newest Rhodes Scholar

When Fatima Zehra Naqvi received the call telling her she had won the 2018 Rhodes Scholarship, she was so shaken up that she had to call back and ask the committee to repeat the announcement and further directions.

“I was in a complete daze, I couldn’t believe it,” said Naqvi.

Naqvi is among the 11 Canadian students named for the prestigious scholarship, which recognizes academic, personal and athletic excellence among undergraduates from around the world and funds two years of graduate studies at the University of Oxford.

Naqvi graduated from UBC in 2017 with a BA honours in English literature and creative writing and will begin her MSc in migration studies at Oxford in the fall. The scholarship had never been a goal for Naqvi during her studies, but she was supported by family and friends to give it a shot.

“I never really considered it, I’d never thought I’d get it. Once I got an email from UBC two years ago saying that I could apply for it, I started thinking about it,” said Naqvi. “I was in my third year at the time, so I sort of thought about it and I applied in my fourth year and I didn’t get through.”

That wouldn’t be the end for Naqvi though. She would go on to apply again in her fifth and final year, leading to her successful application.

“Trying to go through [the application process] twice, that really helped, but also having a support system around me,” said Naqvi. “My faculty, advisors and friends who really supported me and believed in me. I really wasn’t in the mode to try a second time, but being told and being pushed by family and friends to apply for it really helped.”

Naqvi will be focusing her studies at Oxford in migration studies. As a literature student and an immigrant to Canada herself, she has always explored and been interested in issues of migration, displacement and borders.

“Having already explored it through a literature degree, I’m interested in exploring through a social sciences perspective and I hope to continue writing and pursue a career in journalism,” said Naqvi. “I feel like storytelling and literature can influence policy-making and especially with where we are in the world right now, I found that a lot of writers and a lot of journalists are using storytelling as a platform to influence policy-makers.”

Naqvi is a highly decorated scholar and storyteller — in addition to being a Wesbrook Scholar, she is a recipient of the English Honours Medal and the Teresa Tenisci Memorial Prize for demonstrating exceptional achievement in UBC’s creative writing program. She is also the winner of Room magazine’s 2016 poetry contest for her poem, “forgetting urdu.”

“My poem was about my experiences forgetting my mother tongue, Urdu, when I moved to Canada, I was quite young. Recently, I’ve been relearning it again. But forgetting how to read and write in it was quite a painful experience for me,” said Naqvi.

The migration studies program at Oxford is interdisciplinary in nature, which is familiar to Naqvi through her experience facilitating a student-directed seminar at UBC. In her final year of undergraduate studies, she co-designed and co-facilitated a student-directed seminar titled “Analyzing 21st Century Migratory and Social Movements Through New Media and Postcolonial Literature.”

“I was able to share a lot of my truth and my experiences, and I also heard a lot of very cool stories and I got to see a lot of interesting ways of analysing these issues with some different perspectives,” said Naqvi. “Students were in charge of their own assignments and their own projects, so it really allowed us to have our democratic learning environment flourish.”

Currently, Naqvi is taking a break from studying and enjoying a year off to travel, write and explore Pakistan.

“Karachi is where I was born and I wanted to get in touch with my roots. I wrote about Karachi literature for my honours thesis and a lot of my work, even my writing and poetry, a lot of that stuff was about my Pakistani background,” she said.

“I really felt like in order to write about it in a more authentic way, I need to spend more time there and there’s just a lot of questions that I had.”

As Naqvi plans to leave Pakistan and start at Oxford in the fall, she’s looking forward to finding a new community of scholars and friends when she arrives.

“It’s all just such a friendly and exciting community and really inspiring to be a part of that community and to engage with scholars and influencers and people who really care about the world and want to do something to really understand what’s going on,” said Naqvi. “That’s something I’m really excited about.”