Meet our first recipient of the MPP Scholarship – Benjamin Ignac

My name is Benjamin Ignac and I work as the Communications Manager at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). I have been part of the Communications and Advocacy team since 2016. I am a Romani (Bayash) originally from Croatia, but I’ve spent parts of my life in Germany, Hungary, Norway, Netherlands and the US. I am honored to be the first ever recipient of the Blavatnik School of Government – Roma Education Fund Scholarship at the University of Oxford, where I will be pursuing my masters degree in Public Policy.

I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2016 with a BA in Geography and minors in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and German Language and Literature. I love geography. In Croatia, there are annual student competitions in geography and because of my passion and hard work I placed among the top geographers in the nation for five years in a row.  In my hometown, Cakovec I was the first Roma to attend the Gymnasium Josip Slavenski – a very competitive preparatory school that ranks among the top three gymnasiums in Croatia.

The last two years of my high school education I completed at the United World College (UWC) in Norway – an International Baccalaureate (IB) school focusing on making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. UWC is almost entirely student led and focuses on educating the international leaders of tomorrow. Becoming part of this prestigious UWC family was truly a blessing and a transformative experience for me. It definitely put me on the right path to become a change maker. “Learn, earn, return”, is the philosophy that UWC imparted on me for life. A big part of my educational and professional experience was focused on finding ways to give back to society, which I endeavor to do through every job I possess.

After UWC, I went to the US to get my B.A. in Geography at the University of Oklahoma. During my studies I worked as an undergraduate research assistant at the Climate Science Center which is located at my university. It was a very cool feeling working for an institution that has such a big role in researching regional and global climate patterns and preparing adaptation strategies for a changing climate.  I graduated in 2016 and thanks to my research experience and my minor in GIS I managed to get a very competitive research position as a Geospatial Analyst for NASA at their regional center in Colorado. I was working on a six-month remote sensing project that studied the effect of climate change on algal productivity from space using NASA’s earth observation satellites. It was by far the coolest work experience I have had in my life. I also learned a lot about satellites, electromagnetic radiation and algae.

After my experience at NASA, I returned to Europe and came across an internship opportunity at the European Roma Rights Center who hired me as a communications intern. I soon became the Communications Manager overseeing and managing most of our digital output and I’ve been working for the ERRC for almost three years now. As a Romani person I rarely had the chance to affect change or be part of the Roma movement in an institutional setting. I also never worked in the field of communication or advocacy, so this job experience was a good opportunity for me to learn something completely new.

The mission of our Communications and Advocacy team is to raise awareness about human rights violations against Roma, which often remain untold or silenced by governments and media. There are not enough Romani voices out there to direct the discourse about our people. In our communications we also make it clear that legal action can and will be taken to end injustice towards Roma. My personal role is to utilize the ever-changing and evolving social media landscape and Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for the advancement of Roma rights and for legal empowerment of Roma. We are constantly trying to come up with innovative methods and utilize new media to appeal to a broader range of audiences in our advocacy and campaigning efforts.

With my interdisciplinary academic background in geography, practical work experience in Roma rights, and strong ambition to learn and become a leader, I believe that the MPP at Oxford is in line with my ideal career path, which integrates all my interests and will crystalize along the way. I would like to combine my academic background as a geographer with my experience as a Roma rights defender through the MPP at Oxford. From a public policy point of view, I am very interested in combating hate speech online, increasing access to quality higher education and employment (especially ICT, STEM), environmental justice, and access to public health.

I want Roma youth to know that they can grow up and become literally anything. I believe it is important for Roma to be part of a professional field, but I also think we should branch out and diversify our participation in the labor market to have true representation in every sector of public life. I believe that young smart Roma who are in high school, currently thinking about their academic path, should not limit their choices only to fields such as Social Work, Human Rights, Romani Studies, or Pedagogy (although all those are really great and necessary and important too). Having representation in politics and the civil sector is important and crucial for the Roma movement, and I am most likely going down that path. However, we should also incentivize future generations of professional Roma to rise to the top in ALL academic disciplines and professions, even if it has nothing directly to do with the Roma movement. We need Roma businesspeople, architects, investment bankers, surgeons, coders, doctors, engineer, entrepreneurs, web designers, pilots, criminologists and so on.

In the long run I would like to pursue a career in the development sector or get involved in leadership and decision making at higher levels. A PhD in geography or a similar field is also something I have been wanting to do at a later point in my career. I am sure participating in the MPP programme at Oxford will be a transformational experience for me and an important step towards achieving my goals and furthering the Roma movement.