Ashleigh Barnes had yet to settle on what she’d study at university when 33 South American miners were trapped underground in August 2010.
Watching the rescue efforts in Chile’s Atacama Desert on television, and learning about the mine’s long history of safety violations, the Sydney high school student quickly found her vocation – human rights law.
Now a law and international studies graduate, Barnes will soon head to Oxford University as the first Rhodes scholar from UTS. She will use her 2018 scholarship to study for a Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL), and is one of nine outstanding Australian students selected for the prestigious postgraduate study program.
High-profile scholars and world leaders, including two former Australian prime ministers, are among the Rhodes scholarship’s remarkable alumni – there have been more than 8,000 scholars since the program’s inception in 1903.
Though Barnes had heard of the scholarship, she says its reputation initially deterred her.
“I knew about it, of course, but only in the context of sandstone universities, elite sportsmen and politicians – three categories I obviously didn’t fit into,” she says.
Three different people – “a close friend from work, an academic and a university colleague” – urged her to have a go. With her confidence buoyed after winning the University Medal in Law, she began the “intense and transformative [application] process”.
Intelligence and academic excellence are only one aspect of the Rhodes selection criteria. Just as important are qualities such as a “moral force of character”, strong leadership skills and a desire to promote ideas of social justice.
Barnes was well placed on that last score and credits her Catholic secondary school education for her strong sense of service.
Her legal interests still lie in the intersection between corporate law and human rights law. She wants to advance Australia’s fight against modern slavery and hopes to use her time at Oxford to deepen her understanding of the ways corporate and human rights law overlap.
The Rhodes scholarship is about intellect and leadership but it is also about truth, courage and devotion to duty
“Many people think corporate law and human rights law make strange bedfellows,” she says.
“The former is often associated with wealth, power and greed; the latter with respect and dignity. Indeed, many corporations do repeatedly perpetrate gross human rights violations. My vision is to reform corporate law to facilitate and encourage human rights protection.”
During her time at UTS, Barnes won the Dean’s Special Prize, the University Medal in Law and the Sir Gerard Brennan Justice and Leadership Award.
Now, she is conducting research into Indigenous deaths in custody for the UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research. From January to March 2018, she will work as an intern at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the hybrid tribunal hearing the Khmer Rouge Trials.
After her studies at Oxford – “I hope to do an MPhil in Law or a Masters of Public Policy at Oxford after my BCL” – she has ambitions to lead an Australian “think-and-do tank” for human rights and business.
It’s a lot for someone who initially doubted she was Rhodes scholar material.
The lesson, says Barnes, is not to rule yourself out.
“There is no such thing as the wrong kind of degree, the wrong high school or the wrong university. Yes, the Rhodes scholarship is about intellect, leadership and mastery in extracurricular pursuits, but it is also about truth, courage, devotion to duty and more.
“If you have a vision for how you want to fight the world’s fight, back yourself and be game to have a go.”