UT alum is first transgender woman in history selected as Rhodes scholar

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- A University of Tennessee alum is the first transgender woman in the program’s 117 year history to be awarded the Rhodes scholarship.

Hera Jay Brown is a 2020 Rhodes scholar and only the ninth current or former UT student to earn the honor, according to the school.

In a whirlwind week for the UT alum, Brown took a few minutes in her travels back to Brussels where she’s currently working on research as a Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellow, to speak with WATE 6 On Your Side.

She’s been traveling for 25 hours, her phone hasn’t stopped ringing or beeping with notifications. She’s getting the traditional, “Congratulations!” But she’s also getting calls from The Guardian, Forbes, and The New York Times.

Her response to the media coverage: “It’s just me!” She says she’s taken aback by how many people want to know her story and learn more about the work she’s involved with — and what she plans to do with the Rhodes scholarship honor.

“It highlights the importance of this moment. For not only my election, being apart of the cohort. I also encourage a lot people to go back and to read the comments and read the responses to the post. Because, the vitriol and the hate that comes from it is the same reason why this is so important,” said Brown.

This moment is special for Brown, for many reasons, one being — she is the first transgender woman to receive the Rhodes Scholarship, according to the Rhodes Trust.

“This allows me and gives me the privilege to work with the best thinkers in those fields… all around the world,” said Brown.

Brown is a native of Corryton, Tennessee and graduated from UT in August 2018. As a Rhodes scholar, she will have all-expenses paid studies at the University of Oxford in England starting next Fall.

This isn’t the first time she’s made headlines, in fact, in February 2018 she was the subject of a WATE 6 On Your Side Spotlight about her work ensuring students on UT’s Knoxville campus felt included in the face of outside hate speech.

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On her work and research she says she has a goal: “To try and restore what should be the rights and protections of refugees around the world,” said Brown.

Right now, Brown is planning on pursuing both a master’s degree and a doctorate in migration studies.

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