Top law student wins Rhodes Scholarship

20 November 2013
Alice Wang with Governor General
Alice Wang with the Governor General Lt Gen the Right Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae

“If you are in a position to make things happen, then you should. Why wouldn’t you? Instead of asking why, my first reaction is always to ask ‘why not’?”

This is the winning attitude of bright and bubbly Alice Wang, the University of Auckland’s newest Rhodes Scholar, who freely admits that she sometimes acts without thinking about how she’s going to fit everything in to her already very full schedule.

“My default switch is to say ‘yes’,” she says cheerfully. “My schedule can get quite busy – and sometimes you sacrifice quite a lot of your own free time to help others – but I really enjoy everything I take on and do.”

With long black hair, a neat skirt and blouse, flat shoes, bright red satchel, charming humility and a wonderful wide smile, Alice looks and acts like any one of hundreds of 22-year-olds who study at the University.

Hard, then, to imagine that she is among the cream of the cream of the nation’s young minds – one of only three Rhodes scholars to be announced this year, the only woman, and the sole student from the University of Auckland.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” she says frankly. “The Rhodes Scholarship is something that you always hope for, but never actually expect to get. It’s not like competitive sports where you know where you rank – with the Rhodes Scholarship you really have no idea. You just lob something out and hope it happens.”

Alice has just accepted a position in Wellington. For six months, from February to September, she will serve as Judge’s Clerk to Justice William Young in the Supreme Court. The role is a prestigious one, reserved for recent law student graduates who performed at or near the top of their class.

The only drawback she can see is that it’s taking her away from her family – her father Lishan and 16-year-old sister Jane, both of whom live in Mt Albert. She lost her mother earlier this year to cancer and this makes it harder still to leave, but she will have all of January at home before her move to Wellington.

Alice was born in Beijing and came to Auckland with her parents when she was four. She has lived her life in the Mt Albert area, attending Gladstone Primary and Kowhai Intermediate School. She then went to Avondale College, where she completed her first University papers at the age of 15 as a member of the Young Scholars’ Programme.

“My first paper at the University was a psychology paper. It was a great opportunity and very exciting experience being at university despite being still at school with a year or two left. By the time I left Avondale, I already knew my way around the University campus.”

Alice completed her Bachelors of Arts (majoring in economics and philosophy) and Law degrees at the end of this semester, rushing back from her Rhodes scholarship presentation in Wellington very early the following morning to sit her final exam.

She takes up her scholarship at the University of Oxford in September next year, fulfilling a childhood dream that she would one day study overseas.

“Oxford was the University I always dreamed about attending,” she says. “There was always something alluring about Oxford – its traditions and its position as a stimulating hub of intellectual thought – but the high cost of studying overseas was always a significant barrier.”

Alice credits her late mother for her interest in a variety of different things, her appetite for new experiences, and her strong motivation to help those less fortunate than herself.

“Mum spent a lot of her time helping others in the community by whatever means possible. She taught me that if you have time to give, you should give it. I’m not rich or powerful – so I can’t make any big changes yet – but I was brought up with the understanding that it’s a privilege to be in a position to help others and to give whatever you are able to contribute.”

These core beliefs have led Alice to pursue a Master in Public Policy followed by an MSc in Economics for Development at Oxford. She wants to return to New Zealand and work on creating policies to address long term poverty and social inequality in New Zealand, in order to help create a fairer and more equitable society.

At the University of Auckland she has led Make a Difference with Economics, a student organisation aimed at achieving tangible social change through the application of economics. This year, she was the inaugural winner of a University of Auckland Blues Award and the Major Award for Outstanding Contribution to the University Community, for her involvement with SPARK - which is an entrepreneurial competition to encourage students to explore the commercial applicability of their research, and as a member of the University’s governing body.

Alice is also a highly accomplished musician and plays the piano, trombone, viola and oboe, as well as composing and teaching music.

“The privilege of being a Rhodes Scholar has involved a lot more than just my own hard work, and I am incredibly grateful to the many people who encouraged and supported me throughout the process,” she says. “I have been lucky to have had great teachers and my achievement would not have been possible without their generous support and mentorship.”