When Jelani Munroe arrived at Stanford in 2012, he brought a “discovery list” of more than a dozen potential majors, including linguistics; chemistry; and science, technology and society.

Jelani Munroe, Stanford alumnus and Rhodes Scholar

Jelani Munroe, BA ’16, MA ’17, plans to pursue a master’s degree in development studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

But it didn’t take long for Munroe, who was born and raised in Jamaica, to find his intellectual passion after asking himself the question: What do you actually want to learn, and will it enable you to do some of the things you want to do later?

His answer led him to choose two majors – economics and public policy – and to conduct research on the Jamaican general elections of 2016 as an honors student in the interdisciplinary program of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

Munroe, who graduated in 2016, is one of five individuals with Stanford affiliations who will be heading to the University of Oxford in England next fall as Rhodes Scholars.

Currently, Munroe serves in the dual role of financial manager for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and chief executive officer of Stanford Student Enterprises, the ASSU’s finance and entrepreneurship arm, which provides grant funding to more than 600 student organizations.

Lift every voice and sing

In addition to finding his academic path, Munroe found his singing voice on the Farm as a tenor with Stanford Talisman, a student a cappella group. The group, which takes the stage annually during Faces of Community and Baccalaureate, performs throughout the year on campus and around the United States.

Munroe said he will never forget the group’s 2015 performance at the Penn Center, one of the first schools for formerly enslaved people in the United States, located on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. At the center, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held retreats with close aides, Talisman sang a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is considered one of the most cherished songs of the African American civil rights movement.

The song begins:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

“You just felt the place and the people on fire,” Munroe said. “Singing is another way to use your voice and your body to produce very powerful responses from other people. That’s one of the reasons I stayed with Talisman for so long.”

Munroe served as director of Talisman during his senior year, when the group traveled to South Africa. Talisman produced a video montage from the two-week trip, which included stops in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In Johannesburg, the students performed at the African Leadership Academy and participated in collaborative arts workshops with groups like Africappella, a South African vocal jazz band. Munroe said the trip – his first outside the Americas – was memorable.

“Jo’burg has such a bustling scene of spoken word poets, a cappella singers and painters who are using the arts to be ‘young and free,’ and also to grapple with challenging paths going forward,” he said. “If life is good to me, I’ll definitely go back.”

Public service in Nicaragua and in Washington, D.C.

Munroe’s off-campus sojourns began the summer after his first year, when he – along with 11 other Stanford students – went to Nicaragua through Impact Abroad, a program of the Haas Center for Public Service. The students, who lived with local families, worked with a local nongovernmental organization to present its community health and reproductive health curricula in schools, jails and community centers.

In the summer before his senior year, Munroe worked as an intern in the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C., using a Stanford in Government stipend. Since the Embassy of Jamaica also serves as the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the Organization of American States (OAS), Munroe attended meetings of the General Assembly, which comprises the delegations of all 35 independent states of the Americas.

“It was fascinating to observe what was happening on the floor of the OAS at that time – especially the dispute between the Dominican Republic and Haiti regarding the citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian descent,” he said.

Analyzing development issues in Jamaica

In his honors thesis, Munroe analyzed the impact of the 2013 structural adjustment (economic austerity) program on Jamaica’s 2016 general elections. Jamaica had agreed to the program, which was designed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the nation’s debt load – one of the largest in the world – and to jump-start its economy.

“Using a basket of macroeconomic indicators, as well as political science theories on populism, patronage and clientelism – the exchange of goods and services for support – I sought to identify the impact of structural adjustment on the incumbent party’s strategies for winning voter support,” Munroe said.

“The incumbent party’s principal strategy involved framing the election as a referendum on its economic competence and credibility through a largely unprecedented embrace of IMF structural adjustment. Still, the incumbent party narrowly lost, which supports a familiar global pattern: Regimes associated with economic austerity are generally unelectable.”

Munroe, who is representing Jamaica as a 2018 Rhodes Scholar, hopes to pursue a master’s degree in development studies at Oxford.

“Fundamentally, I view the Rhodes Scholarship as a two-year incubation for shaping and clarifying ideas, philosophies and pathways for nation building within Jamaica and the Caribbean,” he said. “To me, development is trying to show love to people I do not know. To help improve life outcomes for people who look like me, live next to me, but have very different trajectories than me.”