Studying Migration, Refugee Issues at Oxford University, Alumna Draws on Personal History

Patel in a tan coat in front of a body of water

Migration and the experience of refugees have played a large role in Bhavini Patel’s (A&S ’16) life.

It's a role that's informed her educational choices and shaped her career goals, driving her to pursue an Oxford University scholarship and to plan a return to Pittsburgh to help the city's immigrants.

The daughter of an immigrant herself, Patel spent most of her childhood in multicultural neighborhoods throughout the United States, which were bustling with people “adjusting or blending in with the American fabric of ‘normal,’” she said.

Her mother, who came to the U.S. from India, moved the family around the country, depending on where she could find work. Among the communities they lived in, Patel said “there was a pure sense of joy in that experience of community bonding.”

There were also worries, however — of deportation, of finding well-paying work, of fitting in to their new country. Those fears left a mark on young Patel, who came to Pitt to triple major in international and area studiessociology and Africana studies. She also earned a certificate in African studies.

As a first-generation student at Pitt, she began researching responses to migration and refugees in the African diaspora. Through college, she also served as editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review, was a member of the Student Health Advisory Board and volunteered as a tutor at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

“I was familiar with Pitt's emphasis on staying connected to the community through service-based learning. This was appealing to me as an avenue to practically apply the skills and knowledge I would gain through coursework,” she said.

Working with the University Honors College’s Community-based Research Fellowships, now called the Academic Community-based Transdisciplinary Research Fellowships, Patel also worked with local faith-based and non-profit organizations to advocate for health care access for Pittsburgh’s African immigrant community. What’s more, Patel became proficient in Swahili.

As she finished her time at the University, Patel interviewed for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to continue her studies in United Kingdom. While the interview didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped, Patel was determined to study at Oxford University anyway.

She applied to the university independently of the scholarship, hoping to earn a Master of Philosophy degree in international relations with a focus on refugee and migration issues, and was accepted. But then came the challenge of paying for the schooling. That’s where Jeff Klink and the Global Grant Scholarships for Rotary District 7300 came in.

“She was extremely focused on what she wanted to do,” said Klink, who facilitates the Western Pennsylvania scholarship program. The funds will help pay her room and board, as well as other living and studying costs.

Patel’s ultimate goal is to return to Pittsburgh and help the groups she’s also enmeshed herself with. She remains a board member of Civically, a Wilkinsburg-based nonprofit organization committed to fostering self-reliance among residents and contributing to regional economic growth. She’s also a founding member of the Alliance for South Asians in Pittsburgh, a collective that represents and advocates for the needs of the South Asian community in Pittsburgh. According to Pitt's Center on Race and Social Problems, about 70 percent of Pittsburgh citizens of Asian descent are foreign-born and may face challenges similar to those Patel saw throughout her childhood communities.

“Her passion for social work and social justice is very evident, and she shows it in the way she works,” said Bibhuti Aryal, the chair of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs who has worked with Patel. “She always learns something from others, and she applies that into practice.”

Patel credited Pitt with providing an environment to delve deeply into the issues she cares most about.

“Pitt ultimately helped me find and refine my voice on issues I am passionate about as well as gave me the courage to translate my thoughts into effective action,” Patel said.