Profile with Jess Auerbach

Jess Auerbach (South Africa-at-Large & St Antony’s 2009) is pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology at Stanford University. She has previously interned at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Nampula, Mozambique. She holds an MSc in Forced Migration from the University of Oxford and a BSocSci in Anthropology and Literature from the University of Cape Town.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in California?

Jess Auerbach: I would say hiking. How could it not be?

Rhodes Project: What book are you currently reading?

Jess Auerbach: Currently, I’m reading The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. But I’ve just come out of my academic qualifying exam, so I’ve read about 350 academic books and a lot of Angolan fiction.

Rhodes Project: What piece of technology could you not live without?

Jess Auerbach: That’s a difficult question. I would say I couldn’t live without a paper notebook.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite childhood memory?

Jess Auerbach: The moment when my twin brother and I learned idioms at school, and we realized what a wild goose chase was, and the intellectual satisfaction that came with sending our four-year-old sister off on one, all around the small-holding where we lived. I still feel kind of bad about it, but it remains very funny. Luckily my sister has since forgiven us.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about your time at Oxford?

Jess Auerbach: I really wasn’t expecting the Rhodes community to be as powerful as it was. I went in with the attitude that Oxford would be an incredibly intellectually nourishing place, and that the Rhodes scholarship was just a means to experience the University. I found it to be completely the opposite. The Rhodes community really transformed so many aspects of myself and my intellectual development, and the degree was kind of by-the-by and not as satisfying as I had hoped. That was definitely a big surprise to me.

Rhodes Project: What inspired you to pursue your PhD?

Jess Auerbach: I did a human rights law and policy degree when I was at Oxford, focused on forced migration. I got very frustrated with working purely at the policy level though, because so often the perspectives of the people most affected were not taken seriously.  I decided that I wanted to go back and ask people what their own solutions to social justice issues were. I realized that I wanted the time to do empirical research in this way, and the U.S. PhD system in anthropology, particularly, allows for the kind of depth I wanted to get at.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

Jess Auerbach: One of the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite real-life heroine?

Jess Auerbach: Graça Machel is someone who has been very inspiring for me throughout my life. I grew up being very conscious of the role she was playing first in the Mozambican struggle, and then in South Africa. And maybe Eleanor Roosevelt. I think when I started getting interested in human rights as an undergrad, she was somebody I really admired for the ways in which she had managed to balance her personal and political life, and the decisions she had made to really stand up for things that at the time were not necessarily mainstream. I appreciate the framework that she established. And Queen Nzinga, who was this Angolan queen who played a very important role in resisting the Portuguese in the seventeenth century, is quite an inspiration too.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Jess Auerbach: I spend a lot of time outside doing sport, and I play cello when I can. I make sure there’s space for human relationships, for good conversations with friends. I love reading fiction. I’m also really interested in woodwork, so when I can, I like to carve things.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you and why?

Jess Auerbach: I’m inspired by people who are committed to things which create a more interesting and more equitable world. Every time I meet somebody who is very focused and thoughtful about what they’re doing—whether it’s selling vegetables on the street in rural Angola or creating some crazy tech start-up in California—I really find that very hope-inspiring and interesting. And of course the Rhodes community is full of those people, which is awesome.

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