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7 International Oxford and Cambridge Graduates

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Lists of famous Oxford and Cambridge alumni tend to be dominated by people from the UK.

Given that they’re British universities, that’s unsurprising. You’ll undoubtedly know the huge numbers of British prime ministers, journalists, actors, scientists and other people in public life who have graced Oxford’s quads and Cambridge’s courts. But for generations, these universities have also drawn keen students from across the globe, and many of those students have gone on to do remarkable things. There are politicians, writers, campaigners and even royalty among their numbers, and their influence has been felt across the world.  

In this article, we take a look at some of the most impressive, famous and change-making international graduates that Oxford and Cambridge universities have produced. And if you’re a student from outside the UK who’s thinking of coming to either Oxford or Cambridge, we hope the idea of following in these footsteps will inspire you.

 

1. Seretse Khama (Balliol College, Oxford)

Seretse and Ruth Khama walk hand in hand.

Forced into exile because of his choice of bride.

 

Born into royalty in 1921 in what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Seretse Khama was a king by the age of 4. His education was an international affair: he went to school in South Africa, where he also obtained his BA, and then spent a year studying at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1945. Subsequently, he joined the Inner Temple in London and became a barrister. So far, so conventional for someone of Khama’s background at the time.

But in 1947, Khama met Ruth Williams, an English woman working as a clerk. They fell in love, and married just a year later. The interracial marriage sparked an immediate international furore, with protests from the apartheid government of South Africa, the British government, and Khama’s own family. The result was that the British government, under pressure from South Africa, exiled Khama from Bechuanaland.

Rather than seeing his marriage annulled, Khama renounced the throne, and was permitted to return with his wife to his homeland in 1957. He went into politics as a private citizen, founded his own political party, pushed for independence from Britain and in 1966, became the first President of an independent Botswana. He was re-elected three times, and from 1966 to 1980, under Khama’s rule, Botswana had the fastest-growing economy of any country in the world.

 

2. Dorabji Tata (Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge)

An old photograph of Dorabji Tata

An industrious philanthropist, just like his father.

 

By the time Doraji Tata was born in what was then Bombay in 1859, the Tata family was already a business force to be reckoned with courtesy of his father, Jamsetji Tata. Jamsetji Tata is now known as the Father of Indian Industry, and as a young man he had four goals in life: to set up an exemplary luxury hotel, to set up an iron and steel company, to found a world-class institute for education, and to establish a hydroelectric plant. He only brought about the hotel in his lifetime; it was Dorabji Tata who saw his dreams of establishing Tata Steel and Tata Power realised.

Having completed his early education in India, Dorabji Tata was sent to England aged 16 to study under a private tutor, and then to receive a university education at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He then returned to Bombay and received a degree from St Xavier’s College there. After a brief stint as a journalist, he travelled the world in support of his father’s cotton business, and following his father’s death in 1904, founded first Tata Steel in 1907, and then Tata Power in 1910 – the same year as he was knighted for his contributions to industry. He remained chairman of the Tata Group until his death in 1932. But his remarkable contribution to industry was not his only legacy: shortly before he died he founded the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, which has provided disaster relief and established schools, hospitals and research centres across India.

 

3. Benazir Bhutto (Lady Margaret Hall and St Catherine’s College, Oxford)

Benazir Bhutto speaking to a reporter.

From sparkling beginnings to a bitter end.

 

Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto was born in 1953 into a political dynasty; her father became minister for energy when she was five, and Prime Minister of Pakistan when she was 20. She was brought up with English as her first language, and her father eagerly encouraged her education and her ambitions to follow him into politics. She attended first Harvard, where she gained her first BA, then Lady Margaret Hall, where she gained a second BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She then spent a year at St Catherine’s College taking a Foreign Service Course for diplomats. Her time at Oxford was busy and successful; aside from her studies, she was elected President of the Oxford Union.

But her life was soon to become much more difficult. Not long after her return to Pakistan, her father – then Prime Minister – was overthrown in a military coup, arrested, and later executed. Bhutto’s brothers founded a paramilitary group to oppose the military government, and that provided a justification for Bhutto and her mother to be arrested. Bhutto was held for several years, including in solitary confinement, before she was released into exile.

Her fortunes turned after martial law was lifted in 1985, and her return to Pakistan drew a crowd of two million. Within a span of 18 months she got married, had a child  and was elected as Prime Minister, leading the party her father had founded. Her government was dogged by allegations of corruption, but following a period in opposition, she was re-elected in 1993. In 1996 her government was again dismissed on grounds of corruption. Charges were brought against Bhutto, though she maintained that they were a political ploy without justification.

In 2007, she was once again campaigning for election to parliament – but that was brought to an abrupt end by her assassination after giving a speech to a rally of her political party. Though the perpetrator remains unknown, the Pakistani Taliban were believed to have been implicated. But the political dynasty her father had built continued: her husband served as President of Pakistan after her death, and her son and one of her daughters have both announced their intentions to follow their parents into politics.

 

4. Margrethe II of Denmark (Girton College, Cambridge)

Margrethe II of Denmark smiling at the camera.

The first female Danish monarch for nearly 600 years.

 

The current Queen of Denmark, born in 1940, must be one of the best-educated royals in the world. In the five years from 1960 to 1965, she spent time studying prehistoric archaeology at Girton College, political science at Aarhus University, and she also studied at the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics. She was born the oldest of three daughters, and not long after her youngest sister was born in 1946, a constitutional process was begun to allow Margrethe to ascend to the throne; the constitution had previously stipulated that only men could hold the Danish throne.

Until Margrethe II became queen in 1972, there hadn’t been a female monarch in Denmark since her namesake Margrethe I, who was queen of Denmark and Norway from 1387 to 1412, and queen of Sweden from 1389 to 1412. Margrethe I was praised as a wise and capable leader, with the mocking nickname “the Lady King” eventually becoming a badge of honour. Her aim was to unite Scandinavia and she did succeed in founding a union that lasted for a century. Her successor may have lived a less dramatic life to date, but Margrethe II is reported to be accomplished in other fields, such as painting, translation and costume design.

 

5. Bill Clinton (University College, Oxford)

Bill Clinton gives a speech in front of the US flag.

After an embarrassing scandal, he still remains part of United States public life.

 

The 42nd President of the United States of America was only the second US president to study in the UK (the first was John F Kennedy at the London School of Economics). After completing a degree at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Bill Clinton won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. Once there, he switched courses within the politics faculty, ultimately studying a year of a B.Phil before leaving early to return to the USA and go to law school there at Yale, where he met Hillary Rodham who would go on to become his wife (and win the popular vote for the US Presidency herself). In 1994, Oxford awarded Clinton an honorary degree and fellowship.

After graduating from Yale, Clinton became a law professor and then got involved in politics, successfully running for governor of Arkansas in 1979. He held that post until 1981, and was then re-elected for ten years in 1983. He became increasingly influential within the Democratic party, especially among the New Democrat group who held that the party needed to move to the centre in order to win elections in future. Clinton put that theory to the test when he ran for President in 1992, and won by a landslide. He was re-elected in 1996 by a similarly comfortable margin, though his second term was dogged by scandal, including an attempted impeachment. Out of the White House, he continues to be heavily involved in public life in the USA, most recently in support of his wife’s presidential campaign.

 

6. Vladimir Nabokov (Trinity College, Cambridge)

Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, pictured together in 1969.

After fleeing the Russian revolution, Nabokov’s success supported his entire family.

 

Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov was born in St Petersburg in 1899, into a family of the Russian nobility. He was descended from a fourteenth-century Tatar prince, and his mother was the heiress granddaughter of a multimillionaire goldmine owner. Nabokov grew up speaking Russian, English and French with equal fluency, and published his first collection of poetry in Russian aged just 17.

But the Russian Revolution caused the family to flee, and Nabokov became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He switched from studying zoology to studying Slavonic and Romance languages, and proved to be an outstanding scholar. His family moved to Berlin and then to the USA, where a position was created for Nabokov to teach comparative literature and then Russian at Wellesley College. It was during this time that Nabokov wrote his most famous – and controversial –  novel, Lolita, which was enough of a financial success that his family were able to move to Switzerland and live entirely on the proceeds of his writing. His most successful novels were written in English, though he and his wife translated many of them into Russian. He was critical of the work of female writers and translators, even though his wife acted as his translator, proofreader, typist and was a passionate supporter of his writing.

 

7. Cornelia Sorabji (Somerville College, Oxford)

An old photograph of Cornelia Sorabji .

Sorabji refused to either sit quietly or blend in.

 

One Oxford graduate who deserves to be better known is Cornelia Sorabji, who was born in Maharashtra, India, in 1866. Her family were keen promoters of women’s rights, especially in education – her father helped to convince Bombay University to admit women – and her mother established several girls’ schools in the city of Pune.

Sorabji was a talented student herself, coming top in her final exams at Deccan College. But as a woman, she was denied the government scholarship that would have permitted her to continue her studies in the UK. She instead became the first woman to graduate from Bombay University, enrolled at Somerville College, Oxford in 1889, and in 1892, was finally given permission to sit the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam – though a special decree had to be passed to enable her to do so. She was the first woman to study Law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to enrol there. Nonetheless, she refused to blend in, wearing brightly coloured saris instead of the plainer colours that were the norm for students in England at the time. Though she sat the relevant exams, she was not able to take a degree at Oxford; women were not granted degrees at Oxford until 1920 (it took Cambridge until 1948).

Undaunted, Sorabji returned to India where she carried out legal work, frequently taking up the cases of women who had no other access to legal representation. It took until 1923 for the law to be changed so that she could officially practise as a barrister, despite her obvious academic and legal ability. Once the law was changed, she became the first woman to practise law in India and Britain, having fought tirelessly against discrimination and paving the way for women to follow in her footsteps.

Images: bike in Oxford (ORA); cornelia sorabji; vladimir and vera nabokov; margrethe II of denmarkbenazir bhutto; dorabji tata; seretse and ruth khama;

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