From opera singer studies to international advocacy

Emilie McDonnell*, MPhil in Law, University College, University of Oxford, England

I am currently an MPhil in Law candidate at University College, University of Oxford and the 2016 Tasmanian Rhodes Scholar.

I graduated from Guilford Young College in 2009 having mainly studied mathematics, English, drama, music and music performance. I was trained throughout my schooling as a classical opera singer but my career path took a dramatic turn.

After taking a gap year to work and travel, I decided to pursue my interest in social justice and enrolled in law at the University of Tasmania in 2011.

In 2015, I gained a Bachelor of Arts (Criminology) and a Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours in Law. In 2016, I also completed my Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and was admitted to the Tasmanian Supreme Court as an Australian lawyer.

Exams, Oxford

During this time, my passion for human rights law and social justice causes was really fostered. In 2013, in my third year of university, I co-founded Tasmania’s first community legal centre for asylum seekers and refugees, the Tasmanian Refugee Legal Service, with a group of Tasmanian lawyers and community members.

I became committed to pursuing a career dedicated to addressing the plight of asylums seekers and refugees and improving the legal protections afforded to them.

My aspiration in wanting to make a real difference to the lives of asylum seekers and refugees resulted in me being awarded the 2016 Tasmanian Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University.

This scholarship has allowed me to fulfil my goal of studying human rights and refugee law in depth, to work and be supervised by incredible academics and experts, meet like-minded students.

Graduation, Oxford

It is also giving me the opportunity to gain the tools I need to change the immigration policies of governments, such as Australia, to bring them in line with international human rights law and refugee law.

In my first year at Oxford, I read for the Bachelor of Civil Law, a postgraduate taught masters law course, which I completed with Distinction in 2017.

I am now on the MPhil in Law, a research degree, where I focus on how to protect the human rights of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants when migration control has been out-sourced to other countries, such as Australia operating a mandatory and indefinite offshore detention regime of asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

In October 2018, I will begin my DPhil in Law (PhD) at Oxford, which will be an extension of my work on the MPhil.

My hope is that my studies at the University of Oxford will provide a career trajectory into the area of refugee and asylum seeker legal protection and policy, specifically in the Asia-Pacific region, such as with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Australian Human Rights Commission, or Human Rights Watch.

Ultimately, my dream is to make a difference in even a small way to the lives of asylum seekers and refugees throughout the world, to ensure they are treated with humanity and dignity by governments, and welcomed warmly and openly into communities after fleeing their home.


  • Emilie wrote this article for GYC earlier in the year. It was first published in the GYC Newsletter Number 73