Barbour Scholarship: An initiative to liberate Orient Women dates back to 1914

"The idea of the Oriental girls' scholarships is to bring girls from Orient, give them an Occidental education and let them take back whatever they find good and assimilate the blessings among the peoples from which they come"

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Barbour Scholars, 1932-33. Image source: bentley.umich.edu
  • The idea behind the Barbour Scholarship was to liberate Orient women
  • And to prevent international future conflicts
  • The Scholarship was first awarded to two Japanese women who came out in 1914

A letter to the late President of the University of Michigan, Ruthven Hutchins explained the principle behind the scholarship program that was created to aid the educational advancement of women from the East Asian countries. In the letter Regent Levi L. Barbour wrote , “The idea of the Oriental girls’ scholarships is to bring girls from Orient, give them an Occidental education and let them take back whatever they find good and assimilate the blessings among the peoples from which they come”( Rufus 15).

While traveling to China and Japan, Barbour met three East Asian women who had studied medicine at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. The kind of work these women were doing inspired Barbour to create a scholarship so that other women from Orient can participate in same work. As explained below, a Western education was perceived as a key to liberating these women and making them independent:

Only one Scholar came directly from the Indian purdah. She was accompanied from her seclusion to the secretary’s office by an uncle; during the first interview, in spite of many attempts to hear her voice, the secretary could distinguish only a faint response, and she looked up but once. Not long afterward, she was a free individual able to say that her soul was not her own (Rufus 25)

The idea behind the Scholarship was not only to liberate such women but also to prevent future conflicts. In 1917, Barbour wrote a letter to Helen Hatch, he said, “If a thousand Japanese girls could be educated in the United States to be physicians and teachers and returned to Japan to ply their work, we certainly never would have any war with Japan…and I think the same is true of other Oriental countries” (Rufus 39).

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The Scholarship was first awarded to two Japanese women who came out in 1914 before the scholarship was officially announced. They were trained for several months Barbour to improve their English and prepare for their exams at University. Although, the résumés of Barbour scholars improved tremendously as more individual participated in this scholarship program. For instance, in 1928-1929, 75% applied for the scholarship. One of the applicants was “a young woman from a high-class Kashmiri Brahmin family, holding degrees in B.A., M.A., and L.L.B from the University of Allahabad and was also the principal of a high school.” However, when judging committee saw the photograph of Miss Shakeshwari Agha, the decision was concordant. Later, Agha spent two years at Michigan where she trained in education and gained a second M.A. before she became the head of the Teacher Training Department of Crosthwaite College for Women, Allahabad. Then, she acquired the position of a secretary for the All- India Women’s conference for Education and Social Reform, mentioned the saada.org article.

For instance, in 1928-1929, 75% applied for the scholarship. One of the applicants was “a young woman from a high-class Kashmiri Brahmin family, holding degrees in B.A., M.A., and L.L.B from the University of Allahabad and was also the principal of a high school.” However, when judging committee saw the photograph of Miss Shakeshwari Agha, the decision was concordant. Later, Agha spent two years at Michigan where she trained in education and gained a second M.A. before she became the head of the Teacher Training Department of Crosthwaite College for Women, Allahabad. Then, she acquired the position of a secretary for the All- India Women’s conference for Education and Social Reform.

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Yearly statistics have shown that more than a few Barbour Scholars have actively participated in different activities with the communities around them and also with other international students in the US. A Barbour Scholar Newsletter, written in 1931 reports that M.A. student Kapila Khandvala was a representative at a conference of students in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Experiences of Barbour Scholars as International Students were not without hurdles and they were planning to participate in Orient Students’ Conference in Chicago. In the year 1946, Leela Desai took the chair and became the head of the Hindustan Times Association in Ann Arbor, later she went on a lecture tour organized by National Board of the YMCA where she explored Midwestern Universities.

Barbour Scholars had to face many challenges as they have to adapt strict rules and regulation, particularly who had held authority positions. According to Carl Rufus’s ” 25 Years of the Barbour Scholarship,” there were two women who strived to adjust to their new lives at the University.

A Barbour Scholar with her own ideas about student life and outside political activity was warned by the Dean of women several times. at a final showdown, she could not understand why she could not be allowed to continue, reminding the dean that she was not obeying the Christian injunction to forgive seventy times seven (23).

Another Barbour Scholar found it difficult to become adjusted to American food and to dormitory life. The first fall she wished to cook her own food and to live her own way. When thwarted, she became hysterical and even threatened suicide. The frightened dormitory head took it to the dean’s wife and together they came to a called meeting of the committee. The chairman and the perplexed deans listened to the story, the crux of which was that the girl decided to go to New York during the vacation… She went, spent a pleasant vacation with friends, returned safely, and the incident was closed, as she became better adjusted and more co-operative (23-24).

saada.org Website mentioned, there’s no proof that these Barbour Scholars averted the International Conflicts as Barbour had expected. Moreover, some of the women found themselves caught in the midst of World War II and its fallout. Dr. E.K. Janaki who was also caught in the thick of war, reported in 1941 in Barbour scholar newsletter,”I am still alive in London and getting along with my work as well as one could. I have just come back from Edinburgh where I went for a rest after months of broken sleep. This part of London has had a lot of bombing (11).”

File:Rackham School of Graduate Studies at UM Ann Arbor 2015.jpg
Rackham School of Graduate Studies. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the University of Rackham Graduate School, Barbour Scholarship still continues to be administrated.

-prepared by Akanksha Sharma, an intern at NewsGram

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  • Aparna Gupta

    The scholarship is amazing and unique as no scholarship provides Occidental education.