Meet Oudai Tozan, Syria | PhD in Education

Oudai is the first of the brilliant scholars from the second cohort of the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship (2020-21) to share his story. We hope that his honest story will impact and encourage you as powerfully as it did us.


What’s your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?

A complicated one but full of learning and aspiration. I left my home country, Syria, in 2015 to start my Masters degree in Scotland. Five days before Christmas 2015, while I was packing to go back home and visit my country/family, I received a phone call that changed my life forever: I got requested to serve in the military. From that moment, my life has been turned upside down. The displacement journey has started with its uprooting experience, identity crisis, professional/emotional instability, and the loss of the sense of home and belonging. In addition to this, whenever I look back at home, I can only see destruction and suffering.

However, this journey has had the most positive impact on my life as well. It was a journey of unlimited learning where throughout the way I was learning about myself and the world, deconstruing my biases, exploring my interests, finding new meaning for life, and discovering a new purpose.

Most importantly, throughout this journey I have connected with Syria and my community like never before.
"My home keys in Syria"

Syrians might have lost their past by being uprooted from where they grew up and they might have lost their present by finding themselves struggling from displacement, identity crisis, and finding belonging. However, they have not lost the future because we have control over our destiny. And education is one of the main ways to secure a future. That’s why I have dedicated the past 5 years to support disadvantaged Syrian students in the UK, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to continue their education and access higher education. Along with hundreds of Syrian colleagues, I mentored, created resources, built student support networks, and designed projects to support my community. My commitment to my community and the education of Syrians led me to co-found the International Syrian Association for Education Development, and organise the Syrians Around the World Conference. Both projects aimed to mobilise the Syrian Diaspora to engage in supporting the education of Syrian students wherever they are.

Was there a defining experience that made you want to apply for Cambridge?

The PhD for me is a healing journey, it is a journey to discover myself, my passion, identity, hopes, and dreams.

My PhD focuses on the Syrian academics and researchers in the diaspora. I am trying to understand their capacity to rebuild Syria, motivation, enablers and constraints, and avenues for collaboration between them. Also, how their identity and relationship with Syria impact their engagement with education development back home.

It was not something I was planning to do back in the days, but in 2020 I started thinking that doing the PhD might be the right option for me. I wanted to bring my passion to education, my identity, my connections, knowledge and skills, my hopes and dreams all to one place, and I couldn’t do this when I am working for an organistion. The defining experience to do a PhD and apply to Cambridge is when I shared a panel on the education in Syria with Basma Hajir, who is now a friend doing her PhD in Cambridge. I was very inspired by her intellectual ability. And when I had a conversation with her, she encouraged me and offered further support. Sometime all what we need is some encouragement and support to follow our dreams.

How did you find out about the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship?

Through the university website. I still remember the feeling when I knew that Cambridge offers a scholarship to students from war-torn countries.

I felt hopeful to be honest, because even if you managed to believe that you will get a place in Cambridge, it is difficult to feel hopeful about the funding. Finding the RW scholarship was a real encouragement to apply to Cambridge.

What would you cherish most from your time in Cambridge?

Cambridge is a great place that treated me so well so far. It is the place where I met wonderful friends, made important connections, ate amazing food, and had beautiful time kayaking and swimming in the river. It is the place where I found all support I need. I cherish this whole experience so far.

Has Cambridge affected the size of your dreams, imaginations and your own potential?

Of course! Cambridge is so good at increasing your capacity to dream and aspire. The learning, the connections, the challenging and intellectual conversations, the competition, and the expectations all make you a different person with way bigger dreams and potential to achieve those dreams.

Last question, what are your ambitions for the future?

Well, in the short term, I am hoping to write two academic papers and a book, finish my PhD, create a database for Syrian academics all over the world, and run a conference for Syrian academics in the UK. On the medium term, I would like to create a collaboration between Syrian academics and find the right job for me. As for the long term, I would like to contribute to rebuilding the higher education and research sector of Syria.


We hope that you found this interview encouraging, and if you relate to his story, you can "contact" us using the function above. You can also sign up to our mailing list here so that we can send you a quick email whenever we have new content from the scholars!

For more information about applying, visit the Cambridge Trust website.

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