'In total shock': the rise of female Rhodes Scholars

She won her university's graduate Medal in Law, has competed in moot courts around the world, speaks fluent French, and spends her weekends rock climbing.

Now, University of Technology Sydney law/arts graduate Ashleigh Barnes is one of only 10 women in NSW history to be named a Rhodes Scholar since the program opened to women in 1987.

She joins eight other young Australians, including three women, set to travel to Oxford University to undertake two years of study on one of the best-known and oldest postgraduate scholarships in the world.

Ms Barnes, who works for Justice Robert McDougall of the NSW Supreme Court, said she was "absolutely elated and in total shock" upon finding out she received the scholarship last week.

"The Rhodes Scholarship is such an incredible platform from which to drive change, and I will cherish this opportunity and use it to do good in the world," she said.

An avid rock climber, Ms Barnes said her passion for the sport formed a big part of her application.

"Rock climbing has incredible lessons for life: the roots on the walls are called problems, so you are literally problem-solving when you climb," she said.

"You have to have the courage to get up on the wall, the endurance to know when to hold on, and the humility to let go when you need to."

This year marks the 40th anniversary that women have been eligible for the Rhodes Scholarship.

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, the first woman to be named national secretary for Rhodes Australia, says that the program is committed to increasing diversity amongst Rhodes Scholars.

"In Australia, we have had high moments where eight of the nine recipients were women, but over time the figure has consistently sat at around 50 per cent, so four to five female scholars," Ms Hughes-Warrington said.

"The biggest problem is having people talk themselves out of applying, so we have been taking the support to where the students are by having volunteers from the Rhodes Scholar program at nearly every university for students to contact and ask questions ??? and volunteers in the selection process to help applicants along the way, calm them down before interviews, supporting them."

Ms Barnes plans on spending her first year at Oxford studying a bachelor of civil laws. She encourages any other young women interested in the Rhodes Scholarship to "absolutely apply".

"What I have learnt from this process is that there is no 'right' degree, university, high school or gender. Rhodes Scholars are coming in more shapes and sizes and the [selection] panel are recognising that."

This story 'In total shock': the rise of female Rhodes Scholars first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.