A Conversation with Tashi Rabgey (BA 1992 UC)

Yvonne Palkowski
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Tashi Rabgey

Insights from a Rhodes Alumna

Tashi Rabgey (BA 1992 UC) was the first Tibetan Rhodes Scholar. A former UC Lit president, she completed law degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, and earned a PhD at Harvard University. A Research Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Tibet Governance Project at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, she is currently writing a book about the need to reframe the Sino-Tibetan dispute.   She has spent much of the past fifteen years working inside the region and has led the development of the TGAP Forum, a seven-year academic dialogue process on governance in Tibet with policy researchers of the Chinese State Council in Beijing as well as Harvard, UQÀM and other global academic partners.  With her sister, Losang Rabgey (BA 1993 UC), she is the cofounder of Machik, an organization that develops opportunities for education, capacity building, and innovation in Tibet.


How did the Rhodes Scholarship change your life?

The Rhodes Scholarship provided an unusual concentration of experiences for me.  It was an opportunity to explore new avenues and competing lines of inquiry at the same time.  So during my time studying law at Oxford, I also began my study of Chinese — considered taboo for Tibetan exiles at the time — while taking my first steps in engaging directly with Tibetan thinkers inside Tibet.  At the same time, I also traveled to India to draft a two-year master plan on behalf of the Tibetan government-in-exile for Tibetan women’s participation in the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  It was a sharp learning curve.  The process both clarified for me the path I would eventually take and also accelerated me along that path.  


What is the most important thing you learned at Oxford?

Finding the right questions is sometimes the real challenge.  I arrived at Oxford with a strong idea of becoming an international lawyer.  I did end up specializing in international law while I was there.  But I found myself drawn to the more conceptual problems of legal theory.  So while I researched my Master of Law thesis on China’s compliance with the international treaty system, I found most compelling the questions being asked by scholars writing in the area of international jurisprudence.  My final exam paper was awarded top prize so I passed muster in my coursework.  But that year of study redirected my path – expanding first into comparative Chinese law, and eventually doctoral studies at Harvard where I wrote my PhD dissertation on legal pluralism and doctrines of sovereignty in post-democratization Taiwan. 


What advice do you have for current students thinking about applying for a Rhodes scholarship?

Trust your instincts.  I learned about the Rhodes Scholarship entirely by accident – I read about it while randomly flipping through a magazine at the end of my third year.  That magazine article was pretty much my only point of reference before I started making the application.  This was years before the Internet, so information was a lot harder to come by — especially for someone from a working class immigrant background.  Having been born into the Tibetan refugee community in India, I was part of the first generation of Tibetans ever to attend schools in North America.  So not only had I never heard of the Rhodes Scholarship before, no one I personally knew in my community had ever heard of it either.  But even without having a social network or any external reassurance that I was a worthy candidate, I’m glad I took a leap of faith in my own instincts and made the application anyways. 


What advice do you have for Jessica Phillips, UC's latest Rhodes Scholar, as she prepares to head to Oxford?

When I returned to Oxford several years ago to give a seminar on my current work, I realized how little I had appreciated the place itself during my years of study there.  So in retrospect, my one advice would be this:  in the middle of all else that is going on – in that infinite array of possibilities for exploring and engaging the world for the better – I hope Jessica will take time to notice and appreciate the present moment as well.  Sometimes that is enough.


What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing a book about the need to reframe the Sino-Tibetan dispute.  The argument of the book is based on my research over the past fifteen years of working inside Tibet.  It’s a perspective that goes against the tide of current global public opinion on the issue.  This perspective became analytically clear to me through my experience directing projects like the Tibet Governance and Practice (TGAP) Forum – a seven-year research initiative involving policy researchers from the Chinese State Council in Beijing and global academic institutions like Harvard University.  I believe there are wormholes we have still yet to explore.  My work is about creating pathways to those wormholes so we can find alternative approaches to resolving the dispute – something that I believe is in the interest of Tibet, China and the world.