Jonathan Oates aims to turn the study of politics into tangible reform

Oates, a Rhodes Scholar, has gained invaluable experience in effecting change as a member of Yale’s student government and through political internships.
Jonathan Oates

Jonathan Oates (Photo by Daniel Havlat)

As a youngster, Ulystean J. (Jonathan) Oates ’23 hoped that he might someday become a neuroscientist. 

But then,” he said, “things happening in the world, like the police killing of Michael Brown when I was in 7th grade, spurred me to start thinking about politics and democracy, and about paying attention to the world around you.”

As a Yale student, Oates has done just that, and more. In addition to studying social reform as a political science major he has gained hands-on experience in effecting change as a member of both the Yale College Council (YCC) and the Silliman Activities and Administrative Committee (SAAC).

Oates, who is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, admits that he ran for a seat on the First Year Class Council partly to meet new people. His first proposed YCC project — creating a free laundry service for Yale College students — was ultimately unsuccessful. A firm believer that “you can learn a lot from failure,” Oates said the experience taught him about “how institutions work and the way that you have to reach out to stakeholders and to understand the problem from multiple different perspectives.” 

Oates went on to advocate successfully to get exercise equipment and increase the availability of rapid COVID testing kits for students. Then, as SAAC co-president, he helped devise a system to cut down long lines in the Silliman dining hall. For these and other contributions to his residential college, Oates received the John C. Schroeder Award last year.

But his desire to improve the lives of others goes farther than just campus life. While Oates enjoys debating the big questions about democracy, he is especially interested in the how’s of political reform, particularly on matters related to racial inequality, political dysfunction, and building sustainable coalitions to deliver change.

The question, really, is how do we get something done?” he said. “How do we solve the problem?”

The senior credits Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy with teaching him to think through “questions of ends and means” in the context of social movements. And he witnessed the machinations of government work first hand last summer as an intern for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee (who retired in January). He’d previously worked as an intern at two nonpartisan think tanks (the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and ThinkTennessee). But in the congressman’s office, Oates learned “not only do you have to think about ‘What’s the smart policy?’ but you also have to think about ‘What will it actually take to get this passed?’”

Oates, who recently won a Rhodes scholarship, will pursue an M.Phil. in comparative government at Oxford University this fall. After that he plans to attend law school.

I’d like to turn my academic interests into something a bit more practical — something that will allow me to make a difference, tangibly, in the real world.”

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