A Rhodes Scholar Speaks – Sushila Rao

Sushila Rao is a fifth year student at The National Law School, Bangalore. She is one of the five Rhodes Scholars from India for the year 2009. En route to the prestigious scholarship, she has excelled in vocal music, street theater and in writing academic articles. When I sent in a request for an interview, a week after the scholarships were announced, she was busy battling assignments and exams. She tells me about the scholarship and, of course, about how even the country’s best can’t escape the rigors of academic grind.

Tell us about yourself. Why did you choose to study Law?Sushila Rao, Rhodes Scholar elect 2009

I was born and brought up in Delhi, and attended Delhi Public School, R.K.Puram. I chose to study law at the age of 17, when I cleared the entrance test for the National Law School, Bangalore. I guess it seemed like a natural choice for me at the time. I was, and remain, enamoured by the immense potential of law as an agent for social change. I was also fascinated by the intellectual challenges that lawyers face on a daily basis while engaging with the "law", the legal system, and the state.

When was the first time you gave applying for the Rhodes’ Scholarship athought? What drove you to apply?

Probably only after the third year of college. I don’t plan very far ahead, to be honest. The Rhodes Scholarship is perhaps the most prestigious academic award available to undergraduates, but it also represents a great tradition and a fantastic platform for young people who are committed to excellence in their chosen fields.

How has being in NLS for the last few years helped you grow as an individual? Would you say it has contributed to your achievement?

Well, I had to live away from home for the first time, so it was certainly a reality check, both in terms of material comfort and the hardships of communal living! To be fair, though, I certainly benefited from the exacting and rigorous academic standards at NLS, and honed my research and communication skills. NLS also offers a wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities, and abundant avenues for personal growth -perhaps unrivalled by any other educational institution in this country.

Could you explain the selection process? Were there any interesting moments in the process that you could tell us about?

Things were a bit different this year, as compared to the last fifty seven years of selection rounds for the Scholarship in India. Normally, you have preliminary interviews at four centres: Delhi, Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta, and about 20 students are then called for the final interviews.

This year, while the four sets of preliminary interviews went on as usual, there was also a separate, nation-wide ‘law round’, in which about 30 law students were interviewed in Bombay, and about 6 were chosen for the final rounds in Delhi in November 2008, along with 13 others from all over India. The final rounds comprised an informal cocktail dinner and a formal (and gruelling) interview the next day.

Both days of the final round were terribly exciting and challenging. The informal dinner is intended to give candidates the opportunity to meet the interviewers in a casual setting. I had a lot of fun, and actually spent most of the time chatting and laughing with the other candidates, all of whom were fun and interesting people. The formal interview panel was headed by Mr. Narayana Murthy, and comprised about 10 very accomplished people from different fields – law, history, medicine, literature, business – many of them Rhodes Scholars themselves. Interacting with such a diverse and awe-inspiring panel for forty minutes was in itself an exhilarating challenge.

In the little time that has passed after you’ve won, how different are the thoughts in your head? Relief? Anxiety? Euphoria? What did you feel when your name was announced?

Nothing has changed, really. It was back to the drudgery of law school life in a couple of days – eight hours of classes, projects, exams, and all that. I will admit I was certainly relieved when I heard my name announced as one of the winners, but there was really no time for agony or ecstasy or anything like it.

What is a normal day in your life like? What do you do to chill out?

Lots of sleep, too much chocolate, too many sitcoms, and unfortunately, too many classes.

There’s no set "agenda" for chilling out, really. I’m a procrastinator by instinct and habit, so I have an extraordinary amount of (illusory) free time. Since I live in a hostel, I spend a lot of time just chatting with my friends, and going out for the usual college type stuff, like movies and shopping. I find shopping therapeutic! I do love to read – I can read anything, from fashion magazines and Archie comics to deep philosophical stuff.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times already, but scholars are not nerds now are they?

Stereotypes are inevitable, but if you’d actually look at the criteria for selection, you’d realize it’s pretty much impossible for a unidimensional bookworm to actually win the Scholarship. All the students that I met at the interviews, and the previous Scholars that I have known personally, are interesting, well-read people, with achievements in sports, theatre, dance and the like. It would be a gross oversimplification to call them nerds.

Your advice to those that think they have it in them to become Rhodes’ Scholars?

Don’t see the Scholarship merely as a badge of honour or as a visa for "academic tourism". Reflect on the reasons why you’re keen on the Scholarship, and why you think 2-3 years of study at Oxford will be beneficial for you and your academic or professional career. Also, don’t try to fit any predetermined "profile" of a Rhodes Scholar. There isn’t one, frankly. Academic achievement is a sine qua non, yes, but beyond that, you’re free to follow your interests. Just make sure you excel at them, though! Also, don’t try to fake an interest or achievement. The people on the Selection Committees are razor sharp, and can see through
you pretty well.

What’s next?

I’ve applied to Oxford, to read for the Bachelor of Civil Law degree. Hopefully, I’ll get in! (The Scholarship is contingent on a college at Oxford acually accepting the Scholar as a student). I’m in Bangalore for another month, and will then be leaving for Washington, D.C. for six months, to finish my final semester of law school on an exchange program at Georgetown University’s Law Centre, which is renowned for its clinical programs.

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