Seniors Joshua Babu ’22 and Wafa Zaka ’22 have been awarded Rhodes Scholarships to study at the University of Oxford next fall.
Babu, who hails from Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of 32 Americans to receive the prestigious fellowship this year. Zaka, an international student from Lahore, Pakistan, is among more than 100 international winners from over 60 countries.
The Rhodes Scholarship program was established in 1902 through the will of Cecil John Rhodes and fully funds two to three years of graduate study at Oxford. Widely regarded as one of the most prestigious international scholarship programs, the fellowship selected its entire cohort virtually for the second time, following a virtual process in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both Babu and Zaka will begin their graduate study at Oxford in Oct. 2022.
When the Rhodes committee read his name aloud in a Zoom call of other finalists last Saturday, Babu “could not believe it.”
“I closed my laptop, went to a little room in Frist and started jumping up and down,” he told The Daily Princetonian in an interview. “It was just complete disbelief. I was so grateful.”
A molecular biology concentrator with a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Babu will use his scholarship to pursue a Masters of Science in Comparative Social Policy and in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation at Oxford. Afterward, he plans to attend medical school. At Princeton, his research has centered on healthcare for transgender youth, an area of both personal and professional interest to him.
“I am gay, and I grew up in a very conservative, very religious environment,” he said. “There were a lot of hurdles there.”
Babu explained that in his first years at Princeton, he approached molecular biology professor Dan Notterman with a goal fueled by his desire to give back to the queer community: to study LGBTQ+ health, and in particular, the benefits of gender affirming healthcare for transgender youth.
“Gender affirming care for kids is super politicized,” he said. “In 2019, there were bills being drafted in some states trying to ban that sort of care, all under the assumption that there’s no evidence for it being an effective tool.”
Notterman connected Babu with endocrinologists and other experts, and they spent the next two years building a team, getting grant funding, and conducting research.
“I’ve been so lucky to have so many medical professionals who have been so excited to start this project with me,” Babu said.
Babu told the ‘Prince’ that one of his favorite classes at Princeton was POL 455/GSS 435: LGBTQ Politics: Identity, Voice, Policy, taught by politics professor Andrew Reynolds.
“We had some of the foremost queer and trans politicians in the United States and abroad come and speak to our class, and it was the most inspiring thing ever,” he said.
At Oxford, Babu plans to use his intersectional study of biology, gender and sexuality studies, and social policy to make a difference.
“My goal at Oxford is to gain this policy perspective and acumen in the political sphere,” he said, “then be able to go to medical school, work with LGBTQ patient populations, learn from them what they need, and then use that policy acumen … to enact real change.”
Outside of the classroom, Babu is the president of the Footnotes, an all-male campus a capella group, and has done extensive volunteer and advocacy work.
When asked who he credits for supporting his academic success, Babu pointed to several mentors: Notterman, African American studies and gender and sexuality studies professor Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, and Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne.
“My closest mentor at Princeton has definitely been Dr. Dan Notterman,” Babu said. Cordero, who taught three of his classes, “was a huge mentor to me.” And Dunne directly inspired him to pursue the Rhodes Scholarship: “It was not on my radar whatsoever, and then … he really pushed me [to apply].”
Babu told the ‘Prince’ he is also grateful for his friends.
“I credit pretty much all of my success to them,” he said. “They’ve been so supportive and loving through this whole process.”
Like Babu, Zaka was overcome with emotion when she learned that she’d won a Rhodes Scholarship. As the last student in her cohort to be interviewed, she’d waited nearly nine hours before hearing any good news.
“I just immediately started crying,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “I was overwhelmed with gratitude.”
A politics concentrator pursuing a certificate in History and the Practice of Diplomacy, Zaka plans to earn a Master of Studies in Global and Imperial History and a Master of Science in Modern South Asian Studies at Oxford. Born in Pakistan, her research interests at Princeton have centered on the political histories of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
“I think most of my research interests have stemmed out of discomfort,” Zaka said. She described learning about the 1971 War in Bangladesh during a Princeton class, and remembering that her high school textbook had devoted just a few paragraphs to the topic.
“I was so shocked by the institutional silences in Pakistan regarding the war,” she said.
Inspired by this moment, Zaka went on to work with the Global History Lab with history professor Jeremy Adelman during the summer. Her research project studied perceptions of the 1971 War — and though the work was “super difficult,” Zaka said she is “extremely happy” that she did it.
“Most of my interest in Pakistan, doing research about Pakistan, is because of my personal history of not being exposed to these historical narratives,” she said. “In the future I hope that I can produce scholarship to diversify the range of voices that narrate Pakistani history.”
Some of Zaka’s favorite courses at the University have delved into similar topics. One of her “best academic experiences” was in HIS 411: World After Empire, taught by professor Gyan Prakash. As a politics concentrator, Zaka was a rarity in the class of primarily history students — but she told the ‘Prince’ that the interesting topics and Prakash’s support made the class memorable and meaningful.
“We read works of very important anti-colonial thinkers like Gandhi, Césaire, Fanon, Edward Said, some of my absolute favorite people. It introduced me to very important critical historical questions,” she said. “I remember that he [Prakash] commented on my final paper: ‘Wish you were in history.’ That was the last push I needed to switch to history for my grad school.”
Zaka also discussed her enjoyment of journalism classes at Princeton, taught by Deborah Amos and Suzy Hansen.
“As an international student, and because English is my second language, I wasn't ... very confident,” Zaka said. “But [Hansen] was extremely supportive, and she put so much confidence in me.”
In Amos’ class, Migration Reporting, Zaka had the chance to do in-person reporting in Pakistan, an opportunity unavailable to many of her classmates living in the U.S.
“There are very few courses that teach you how to translate stories effectively and ethically onto paper,” Zaka said. “[Migration Reporting] has helped me a lot to condense complex narratives into comprehensible but nuanced stories that do justice to people's experiences.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had both professional and personal impacts on Zaka: she told the ‘Prince’ that it was “history in the making,” but also a source of grief.
Professionally, she noted that mainstream coverage of the pandemic recorded “a very limited number of voices,” inspiring her to build an archive to document experiences of the pandemic. Working again with the Global History Lab, Zaka spent her time at home in Pakistan interviewing marginalized people, including religious minorities, refugees, women, and healthcare workers.
“The narratives that we are producing right now ... are going to shape future systems of power and how we look back to this time period,” she said.
On a personal level, Zaka also had to face several painful losses: the deaths of her grandmother, of close friend Zoya Shoaib ’20, and of Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim life coordinator at Princeton.
“It was a lot of grief, having to deal with that,” she said, “especially at a time when you're not with them, and you're not with people who are also grieving.”
After Oxford, Zaka says she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Pakistani or South Asian history. She told the ‘Prince’ she is grateful to many peers and mentors for their support along the way, including her Princeton and Pakistani friends, and several professors.
“I strongly, strongly feel that this is not just my hard work,” she said. “It’s a combination of privilege and support. I feel like I’m a project of so many people coming together.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Zaka’s interview took place on Zoom. The interview took place in person. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.
Evelyn Doskoch is a Head News Editor who has reported on University affairs, COVID-19 policy, student life, sexual harassment allegations, town affairs, and eating clubs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EvelynDoskoch.