OXFORD, England — The audience rose as the black-robed scholars proceeded down the center aisle of the cavernous auditorium adorned with large paintings of European monarchs from centuries past.
The occasion was a formal lecture at the University of Oxford about Merze Tate, the first African American woman to attend the school, in 1932. While Tate received a lot of support at Oxford, she also faced isolation, and her two male examiners did not pass or fail her the first time — though she continued to believe throughout her life they should have — leaving her in limbo for a year.
Listening in the audience this November day was Hazim Hardeman, 24, the Temple University alumnus and Rhodes scholar from Philadelphia.
“Emotional,” Hazim said after the talk, leaning forward as if to exhale and punctuate his feelings. The obstacles Tate overcame — she was passed the second time, and went on for a doctorate at Harvard and to an esteemed career as a professor — weren’t her fault, he said.
“That was theirs for not recognizing her brilliance,” he said.
It had been nearly two months since Hazim had made the jump from Philadelphia to this city of dreaming spires and the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
The University of Oxford is a huge system, made up of 38 colleges mostly spread over a square mile or two and enrolling nearly 24,000 students, about half of them graduate students.
In some ways, it offers typical trappings of college life: Hazim has attended talks by Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart; tried out for the basketball team and made it — though he decided not to play; and even got to see the Eagles beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in London.
In other ways, Oxford is unlike any other school.
Its awarding of degrees dates to the 12th century, and today’s graduation ceremonies retain many of the features of the past, including being conducted entirely in Latin. Hazim has relished being in a community of global scholars and forged relationships with professors who share his academic interests.
Every day, he walks among the sand-colored, castle-like buildings, steeped in hundreds of years of history, and even at 5-foot-9 has to duck to clear ornamental gated doorways that were built in times when people were shorter. The Radcliffe Camera, a mid-18th-century edifice designed in neoclassical style that houses library collections, has become one of his favorite destinations.
"If I could transport somebody here for five seconds, this is what I'd show them," Hazim said.
But for Hazim and some other black scholars, the heady experience of Oxford is tempered with a harder reality: The man whose name is on the scholarship they hold has a racist past that in recent years the university has had to reckon with.
More than 100 years have passed since the first black Rhodes scholar – also a Philadelphian — entered Oxford. About 3 percent of current students (although 10 percent of post-graduates) and 1 percent of academic-related staff identify as black; while the United Kingdom population is only about 3 percent black, the university draws students from around the world. And it was only this year that the first black female history professor in the United Kingdom was appointed.
Like many universities in the United States, Oxford has grappled with how to become more diverse and better reflect that diversity in its curriculum, even in the portraits on its walls.
Hazim has walked through those hallways, soaked up the history, and marveled at how Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, is a mere infant compared to Oxford. He also has been careful not to romanticize the experience.
“If we do, then we allow Oxford to over-determine what intelligence and beauty is,” he said. “Then the assumption is that people who have traditionally had access to a space like Oxford are believed to have a monopoly over those things.”
His educational path back home — from the city public schools to Community College of Philadelphia and a Temple commencement where he was honored as a magna cum laude graduate — was full of hurdles and victories that shaped him. Oxford, he knows, isn’t the finish line, but another leg of his journey. A place of incredible learning opportunities, and its own unique challenges.
"One of the adjustments has been accepting this place on its own terms and taking in everything it has to offer," he said, "and trying to find myself a home here."
Many U.S. Rhodes scholars hail from Ivy League or other top-tier institutions and have already been accepted into prominent graduate schools. Some come from affluent families, headed by top executives or advance-degreed professionals.
Before he arrived at Oxford this fall, Montgomery County’s Alan Yang had scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT, played the piano eight times at Carnegie Hall, and majored in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. The Upper Dublin High graduate, now 22, has been accepted to Harvard Medical School.
Christopher D'Urso, 22, a University of Pennsylvania alum from Colts Neck, N.J., is pursuing a doctorate in public policy at Oxford, then will head to Yale Law School.
In the last five years, four Rhodes scholars have come through the Philadelphia School District, according to the district. Unlike Hazim, the other three attended the district’s prestigious magnet high schools and then an Ivy League university.
Some scholars here have already made their mark. Jamie Beaton, a student from New Zealand, runs his own global education business. He is said to be worth $70 million.
By contrast, Hazim grew up in a single-parent household in a low income, North Philadelphia housing development, without many of the same advantages.
For some black students, like Kabelo Murray, a second-year Rhodes scholar from Johannesburg, South Africa, the lack of diversity is noticeable, and racial insensitivity seems to be a daily occurrence. At one point, Murray said, he figured it had been 28 days since he hadn’t endured something he found offensive.
One day, “some random guy comes up to me and grabs my hair and says, ‘Oh, this is really weird. This texture is really abnormal,’” he said. “I was, like, 'Why do you think that was OK? '”
On another, someone told him he must be another student’s brother because they looked the same, Murray said. And then there was the day two men threatened to call the police on him, alleging he was stalking a stranger when he was just walking to his home.
Murray believes the incidents reflect ignorance rather than hate, “but that doesn’t negate the consequence of these things.”
It’s not enough, however, to override the academic experience and the friends he’s made from around the world. “I want to be here,” he said on one mid-November afternoon at Rhodes House.
The ornate 1928 structure, with vaulted ceilings and a grand rotunda at its entrance, sits in the heart of Oxford’s campus. With lecture rooms, an idyllic library space, a garden, and a room adorned with portraits of medical pioneers, human rights activists, and world leaders who once walked the same halls — the acting president of Pakistan, the prime minister of Australia, former President Bill Clinton — it is the gathering spot for students in the Rhodes program.
It’s where the scholars — about 100 new ones arrive each year — attend lectures, workshops or retreats on topics ranging from climate change and health care to the biological clock or leadership. There are events at which to mingle, and the students themselves create thematic groups; one raging this fall probed artificial intelligence.
Hazim has found a community among the 31 other U.S. Rhodes scholars. A record 10 African Americans are among the group, including Simone Askew, the first African American woman to serve as First Captain of West Point’s Corps of Cadets.
"Having that community made all the difference," Hazim said, "because this place can be really lonely. It can be really isolating.”
The first African American Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Central High, was shunned by several Oxford colleges when he arrived in 1907. He went on to become the philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and a public school in West Philadelphia was named for him.
Hazim was aware of Locke’s legacy; a book about him rests on his shelf in Oxford. He also appreciates the fraught history of the Rhodes scholarship.
Cecil Rhodes, whose will established and endowed the scholarship in 1902, was a British imperialist and mining magnate in South Africa. He was renowned for his efforts to marginalize blacks and has been cast as an architect of apartheid.
In 2015, Oxford was swept up in a larger movement, “Rhodes Must Fall,” that called for the removal of Rhodes statues at universities, including one of Oxford’s colleges, Oriel. A book titled the same and focusing on Oxford came out this year. It’s reminiscent of similar efforts in the United States to remove statues or other symbolism of individuals with racist pasts, including a controversy at Princeton over President Woodrow Wilson.
Oxford ultimately decided to keep the statue, and Rhodes' name remains on the scholarship — even though more than half its funding now comes from sources other than Rhodes' money.
Elizabeth Kiss, who heads Rhodes House, said scholars are not asked to venerate Rhodes. His complicated legacy is discussed, she said.
“It kind of prompts us to ask those nuanced questions,” she said. “How do we appreciate the brilliance of the idea of a global scholarship while acknowledging the limitations of the man or the things about him and his time that we have deep disagreements with?”
Hazim understands the struggle of the program to reconcile the past with the present.
Still, he finds it “repugnant” to see portraits of the late South African President Nelson Mandela and Rhodes juxtaposed.
"It suggests these two are operating on the same moral plane,” he said, “and I just don’t think that’s true.”
He thinks the statue should come down and that Rhodes' name should be stripped. But that didn’t stop him from accepting the honor, even though the issue has stirred debate among some black students. “If anybody deserves the scholarship,” Hazim said, “it’s us, because a lot of his fortune was made on the backs of people who look like us.”
But he has found a way to register his opinion: He’s resolved to use his experience as one of Rhodes' scholars “to undermine everything that he stood for.”
Such issues are always at the forefront for the aspiring social justice scholar.
He had planned on studying social and economic policy at Oxford, but thought the curriculum appeared too quantitatively focused and not in line with his interests. A week before classes started, he switched to U.S. history, and aligned with advisers who study issues of race, including Barbara D. Savage, a University of Pennsylvania professor spending the year at Oxford as a visiting scholar.
It was Savage who gave the lecture that November night on Tate, Oxford’s first African American female student.
The event was a formal affair. Two of the black-robed scholars who ushered her in carried staves, silver ornamental rods used in many university ceremonies. They tipped their hats and bowed to Savage, who had moved to the lectern.
Hazim smiled at the extreme formality. “But that’s their traditions,” he said he thought. “You have to respect it.”
Hazim also has a class co-taught by Savage focusing on contemporary American culture in the 20th century, touching on issues of culture, race and economics.
“It’s a class of really smart, well-read, opinionated students,” Savage said. “Hazim is fitting in really well.”
Oxford’s educational program is more loosely structured than most in the States. Scholars describe it as “guided self-study.” Though there are exceptions depending on subject, students tend to spend few hours in class and have lots of time to craft their own learning.
Kiss, the Rhodes House head, a former Rhodes scholar and a U.S. native, said the system can be a “a real culture shock” for U.S. students, used to following a syllabus and studying for exams.
"We want you to develop a kind of expertise," explained Kiss, who led Agnes Scott College in Georgia before coming to Rhodes last summer. "We will guide you through it."
Yang, the scholar from Montgomery County who has been on the fast track, appreciates the time for reflection.
“Just being able to put the brakes on a little bit, slow down, reflect, and spend time with all these people around me has been such a blessing,” said Yang, who is studying immunology and whose parents, both chemists with UCLA graduate degrees, plan to visit him over the holidays.
Hazim’s academic work mostly consists of reading and writing essays. He’s not toiling for hours daily, he said, but finds he’s learning all the time.
"Everybody here is so brilliant that I'm challenged in conversations," he said. "I'm pushed to think other ways."
Hazim lives in a dorm-style apartment with a window overlooking a leafy courtyard. It’s his first time living on a college campus; at Temple, he stayed home to save money. St. John’s, like other colleges at Oxford, has a formal dining hall with long tables similar to those used in the Harry Potter movies, parts of which were filmed at Oxford. Hazim prefers hitting the food trucks at night.
D'Urso, the New Jersey native who also is in St. John’s, eats there just about all the time and even took his parents, Rutgers University MBA grads, to it when they came to visit last month.
D’Urso came to Oxford with a bachelor’s in international relations and a master’s in public administration from Penn, and knew since he was 8 that he wanted to go into law and politics. He has a desk in one of Oxford’s newest buildings, the circular, glass-enclosed Blavatnik School of Government, that looks out on a large green expanse.
The day after he arrived in Oxford, his favorite composer, Yanni, released “When Dreams Come True.”
“I’m living in the moment right now” was his thought, he said.
Scholars receive a monthly living stipend of 1,262 British pounds, equivalent to $1,606. Room costs vary by college; for D’Urso and Hazim, who live a few doors away from each other, it comes to roughly half of their stipend.
In mid-November, Hazim's room was sparsely decorated, his bulletin board vacant except for prayer beads, his Temple backpack on the floor.
"I'm ready to go," he kidded.
Hazim at times craves home. He misses his family, the food, rooting for his teams. A night owl, he watches Philadelphia sports teams (Oxford is five hours ahead) in the wee hours. He finds comfort in his Navy blue North Philly sweatsuit and sometimes strolls down Broad Street — Oxford has one, too.
One thing is for sure: Hazim will return home with a global perspective.
Earlier this month, he left with other scholars on a trip over their first break, beginning in Budapest, continuing to Athens, Rome, Florence, and Venice and planning to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris. For a young man who spent nearly his entire life in one place, these have been amazing first steps on the journey of a lifetime.
“I want to go everywhere," Hazim had said one April afternoon in North Philadelphia, after teaching a class at Temple. "Morocco ... France ... I want to go to parts of Africa. ... I just want to go all over.”