On a crisp and sunny autumn morning, Madeleine Chang opened her silver laptop on a small round table in the outdoor terrace of Olives Café – one her favorite places on campus.

Madeleine Chang

Madeleine Chang will explore ethical issues posed by the internet as a Rhodes Scholar. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“The history corner is right over there,” Chang said, pointing to the sandstone-and-red-tile-roof building in the historic Main Quad that houses the History Department, her academic “home” on campus as a history major.

“I come here to do homework,” she said. “It’s a great spot because I run into people I know – so it’s half work and half fun.”

As if on cue, a friend walked through the terrace carrying a cup of coffee and said hello to Chang, who was recently named a 2018 Rhodes Scholar – one of four Stanford seniors and an alumnus who will begin graduate studies at the storied University of Oxford next fall as Rhodes Scholars.

Chang, who learned she had been selected as a Rhodes Scholar just a few days before Thanksgiving, said she was “surprised, honored and happy” to be awarded the scholarship, and thankful to the many people who have played a role in her academic success.

“I can’t name them individually because there would be a million people to thank,” she said with a laugh, adding that “a megacity” of supporters helped her over the years, including family, friends, mentors, professors and advisers – at Stanford and beyond.

Exploring ethical issues posed by the internet

As a Rhodes Scholar, Chang plans to earn a master’s degree in social science of the internet at the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary and teaching department of the university focused on the social and political implications of the internet. She hopes to study an ethical framework for the digital age.

Chang began exploring the ethical issues surrounding the internet through the track she chose as a Stanford history major – history, philosophy and the arts.

It has been one of the topics she explored as a columnist for the Stanford Daily and for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she worked last spring under an internship that provides stipends for Stanford students to work at news organizations across the country. In a Sunday Chronicle feature story, “Our fear of artificial intelligence? It is all too human,” she wrote about the role human prejudice plays in the technological systems people build.

“When there is bias in the data used to train artificial intelligence, there is bias in the output,” she wrote in the story published April 21. “AI-controlled online advertising is almost six times more likely to show high-paying job posts to men than to women. An AI-judged beauty contest found white women most attractive. Artificially intelligent software used in court to help judges set bail and parole sentences also showed racial prejudice.”

Last summer, Chang worked on an internal research project at the Open Media and Information Companies Initiative (Open MIC) in New York City, examining big data and civil rights. The research, which she titled What Happens When Robots Read Resumes?, focused on the use of algorithms in hiring.

Currently, Chang is writing an honors thesis which combines her interest in internet-based systems with her longtime interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her thesis analyzes the Wikipedia entry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and asks how crowdsourcing information affects the historical record of contested sovereignty.

Focus on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Chang traces her interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to her Jewish heritage – her mother’s side of the family is Jewish – and her early education in Jewish day school, where she learned Hebrew. After graduating from high school in San Francisco, she decided to take “a baby step” toward furthering her own education on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by studying Arabic for a semester in Jordan before beginning her studies at Stanford.

While studying Arabic at Stanford, Chang was introduced to classic Arabic poetry. Last fall at Stanford’s Montag Center for Overseas Studies in Oxford, during a one-on-one tutorial with an Oxford scholar, she delved into modern Arabic poetry by studying Mahmoud Darwish (1965-2008), who is among the most eminent Palestinian poets.

“I think poetry gives us a language to talk about complicated issues outside the bounds of facts and figures,” she said.

At Stanford, Chang has studied a variety of topics related to the Middle East, including the history of Islam, contemporary Islamophobia and global political history, and the insights literature can provide into the changing and diverse nature of Zionism.

Getting around the travel ban

In early 2017, Chang faced a formidable hurdle while organizing the annual American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford: Executive Order 13769, commonly known as the “travel ban.”

Every year, the student-led organization – known as AMENDS – brings together young leaders from North Africa, the Middle East and the United States who are devoted to creating positive social, political and economic change in their communities and countries.

The organization, which is sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, had already accepted delegates from several Muslim-majority countries from a competitive pool of 500 candidates. Under the travel ban, some would no longer be able to travel to Stanford.

As co-president of AMENDS, an organization she joined during her first year at Stanford, Chang was responsible for responding to the predicament.

The student team brainstormed. Then Chang had an idea: move the summit to Stanford House, the university’s overseas studies center in Oxford. The center’s director welcomed the idea, so Chang and the team got to work on making it happen.

“I guided our finance team in making a new budget, worked with the communications team to write an op-ed in the Stanford Daily explaining the situation, got funders on board, and reached out to AMENDS alumni for on-the-ground support,” said Chang, who helped write visa letters to the U.K. Home Office explaining the purpose of the summit.

The 2017 summit took place in June with 21 delegates, including youth leaders from Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

“The irony of being an American-Middle Eastern group unable to meet in America itself spoke to why we needed to meet: to remind ourselves and others of the incredible potential of young people connecting across borders,” Chang said.

At Stanford, Chang is a house manager of a 35-student cooperative residence. Alongside working on her thesis, she says her biggest challenge this quarter has been cooking food for that many people. “I’ve learned a lot by trial and error,” she said. “Too many bay leaves are bad, dress the salad at the last minute, and when in doubt, just make pasta!”

If students are interested in learning more about the Rhodes  program – or if Stanford faculty and staff wish to nominate students – they should contact Diane Murk, manager of the Overseas Resource Center, at dmurk@stanford.edu; or John Pearson, director emeritus of the Bechtel International Center, at john.pearson@stanford.edu.