The Marshall Scholarship: An Investment in a Modern and Diverse Special Relationship

Updated Dec 31, 2015
James KariukiJames Kariuki

Earlier this month, the British Government announced the latest winners of the Marshall Scholarship, our flagship award that funds graduate study in the UK for university students across the United States. Next September, 32 exceptional young Americans will travel to Britain, following in the footsteps of almost 2000 Marshalls before them. The program was launched by the British Parliament in 1953 to thank the United States for the Marshall Plan’s contribution to post-war European construction. Like winners of privately funded programs for UK study—such as the Rhodes and Gates scholarships—these students have overcome intense competition to earn their place in the UK.

So what makes a Marshall Scholar? There was a time when some people held a certain stereotype of what a scholar should look like: from an Ivy League institution destined for Oxford or Cambridge University, probably a man, and almost certainly White.

But the reality is that the Marshall Scholarship has always been more diverse. About a third of alumni are women—from award-winning journalist Anne Applebaum to entrepreneur Nancy Lublin, founder of DoSomething.org and Crisis Text Line. The first African-American Marshall, John Willis, went to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1963. Marshall Scholars have always come from a range of U.S. universities and gone to a wide group of British ones. What they have in common is academic excellence and the potential to become future leaders and ambassadors for both our countries.

Still, as our societies evolve and become more diverse, we are determined to ensure we do even more to attract the best candidates, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Over my three years at the British Embassy in Washington, I have worked with our nine Consulates General across the country to implement a program of outreach to groups and academic institutions that are underrepresented in our applicant pool. These include majority Hispanic and historically Black institutions from California and Florida to Georgia and Alabama. Most importantly, we are encouraging students who might not fit preconceived notions of what makes a “successful scholar” to apply.

These efforts are starting to bear fruit. In the last two years a number of institutions—Boise State University, Olin College of Engineering, Rhode Island and Texas Brownville—have had their first Marshall Scholars. With diversity of institution comes other forms of diversity. A number of recent winners are first-generation university graduates. And since 2010 there has been a steady increase in awards made to students declaring themselves to be of Asian American, African-American, Hispanic American or mixed ethnicity.

Since the first class in 1954 there have always been female Marshall Scholars. The proportion of successful women has been growing over time—encouraged by role models such as White House Legislative Director Katie Beirne Fallon—and in recent years we have achieved gender balance in our applicant pool. So we expect half our future winners to be women, although we are still falling short of that target. We have taken a number of steps—such as rigorous standardization of the selection process across the country and ensuring gender balance in selection committees—to eliminate the potential for any unconscious bias in the system.

In the end, the Marshall Scholarship is not just a thank you to America from the British people. It is a long-term investment in a relationship built on shared values and interests and underpinned by deep people-to-people links that span government, business, academia and culture. I have no doubt that the class of 2016—including Howard University English major Joel Rhone, who wants to study American society from the outside at Manchester University, or Johns Hopkins medical student Anu Ramanchandran, who will use her time at Cambridge to focus on health services for refugees—will play their part in strengthening the lasting bonds between our two countries.

James Kariuki is counsellor and head of the Global and Economic Policy Group at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.