In December, Sarah-Jane Littleford C’09 became the third Penn woman in as many years to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. She’s the first Penn winner to hail from Zimbabwe, resting place of Cecil Rhodes, the English-born diamond tycoon who established the scholarship at the University of Oxford.
Rhodes, who also lent his name to the colony that later became Zimbabwe and Zambia, made his fortune in mining. Littleford shares his interest, if not his politics. In 2007 she interned with the human-resources department of Zimbabwe Platinum Mines.
“We spent a summer going round the rural areas that surround the mines,” Littleford says, “and interviewed head teachers, community leaders, nurses, and doctors. We basically said to them, ‘What do you expect from the mine, and how do you feel about the mine expanding into this area that you live in?’ We were really trying to tease out what the mines should be doing.”
The mining industry may not have a sterling reputation for social consciousness, but expectations often ran high. “The community saw the mining company as this rich parent company who would come and solve all their problems for them. And of course that’s not going to happen. But maybe it could do things like sink boreholes [for wells], or provide facilities for nursing clinics.”
After completing an individualized double major in sustainable development and environmental studies at Penn, Littleford joined the University’s facilities and real estate department, working in its sustainability team [“Red and Blue Makes Green,” Nov|Dec 2009]. She doesn’t see herself in academia, but says being a Penn staff member gave her a better understanding of how the University works—and how to change it.
“It’s been a really interesting experience seeing how a huge organization like Penn, which is so decentralized, handles this very coordinated and centralized process of streamlining and making all of our processes green. Of course there is frustration: I want to make everything really green, right now!—very much the tree-hugger view. But of course that’s not a sensible way of going about things. And when you take a step back, Penn is doing great things.”
At Oxford, Littleford will pursue a master’s of philosophy in geography and the environment. “In five or ten years’ time, I see myself back in Zimbabwe doing environmental consulting work,” she says. “The country’s slowly recovering and coming up to speed, and by then, I hope the time will be ripe.”