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, Ashleigh will soon head to Oxford University as UTS’s first Rhodes scholar. She’s one of eight Australian students selected for the prestigious postgraduate study program, and plans to use her 2018 scholarship to study a Bachelor of Civil Law.
Ashleigh says, “I knew about the scholarship, of course, but only in the context of sandstone universities, elite sportsmen and politicians – three categories I obviously didn’t fit into.”
But, three different people – “a close friend from work, an academic and a university colleague” – urged her to have a go. And, with her confidence buoyed by winning the University Medal in Law, Ashleigh began the “intense and transformative application process”.
For a graduate lawyer, the scholarship offers an immediate opportunity to understand the ways corporate and human rights law overlap, and, in the future, how she might be able to advance Australia’s fight against modern slavery.
“Many people think corporate law and human rights law make strange bedfellows,” says Ashleigh.
“The former is often associated with wealth, power and greed; the latter with respect and dignity. Indeed, many corporations repeatedly perpetrate gross human rights violations.
“My vision is to reform corporate law to facilitate and encourage human rights protection.”
In fact, between finishing her studies at UTS and starting at Oxford, Ashleigh has spent her down-time conducting research with Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research into Indigenous deaths in custody and working as an intern at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the hybrid tribunal hearing the Khmer Rouge Trials.
She’s also spent a year working as the Tipstaff to the Honourable Justice Robert McDougall in the Supreme Court of NSW and from March to September will take on the role of Graduate Lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills.
The lesson, says Ashleigh, is to never 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.”