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Students attack a defaced statue of mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town in April of this year.Rodger Bosch/AFP / Getty Images

Billy-Ray Belcourt was ready when the selection committee deciding if he won one of this year's Rhodes scholarships asked him how he could reconcile his identity with the colonial legacy of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century South African imperialist whose bequest created the prestigious award.

"I said that it's critical that someone who was not initially imagined to be an ideal Rhodes scholar be named a Rhodes scholar, especially in a time of reconciliation," said the 21-year-old from the Driftpile Cree Nation, one of the 11 Canadians who have won a Rhodes this year.

Mr. Belcourt, a University of Alberta student, will head to Oxford to study why HIV transmission rates on First Nations reserves are so much higher than those of other Canadians. He does so at a time when the Rhodes is the subject of criticism from the outside and soul-searching on the inside.

"It's not a neutral sum of money for being a good person and in your early twenties," said Jess Merry Brett Auerbach, a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford who won the Rhodes six years ago.

This September, Ms. Auerbach published a 34-page alternative report on Rhodes alumni. It focused on the accomplishments of former award winners who had gone on to work as volunteers, teachers or in religious orders.

The report, Ms. Auerbach says, came out of a vigorous online discussion she began seeking to find out more about Rhodes alumni who had become neither rich nor famous.

"The idea was to profile a wide range of the people in our community. The response in my demographic of Rhodies was very heartfelt; lots of appreciation for a glimpse into the vulnerabilities and different choices people have made," said Rosanna Nicol, a 2010 Canadian alumna who contributed to the report.

That the scholarship is expanding to China this year, and plans to grow to Russia and Brazil in the future, makes it even more important to answer questions about its history and mission, some say.

Nowhere is the debate over the current values and historical legacy of the scholarship more heated than in South Africa. Student activists – organized under the hashtag #RhodesMustFall – have connected demands for the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes at their university campuses to changes to postsecondary education that would reflect the country's black students and faculty.

So complex are feelings in South Africa that some former winners will omit the award from their CVs if they are applying for work anywhere on the continent. At the same time, the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation, which gives scholarships to dozens of African students is going strong and plans to expand.

In Canada, grappling with the legacy of the Rhodes has meant talking about the country's relationship with indigenous people, said Andrew Wilkinson, British Columbia's Advanced Education Minister and the Canadian secretary for the Rhodes.

Mr. Wilkinson said that he expects the number of Rhodes winners from First Nations communities to grow from less than a handful so far.

"This is a scholarship that requires a big support network in the background to have raised a student through whatever circumstances they grew up in to be scholastically excellent and to be active in their community. And disadvantaged communities have had a long struggle to come in this category," he said.

"We think in this new century that we have finally arrived at a place where we are finally seeing a suitable cross section of Canadian society."

But the global debate is happening in Canada, as well.

At this year's "sailing" dinner of Canadian Rhodes alumni, the traditional toast to the founder was replaced by a toast to the spirit of the scholarships.

Still, in spite of the controversy, winning the Rhodes is about building links and community in the world, said one of this year's winners.

"It is a life-changing moment for me," said Léo Bureau-Blouin, who won one of two scholarships for Quebec students. Mr. Blouin is known by Canadian students as one of the leaders of the province's Maple Spring student protests. More recently, he was a provincial politician. At Oxford, he plans to study how citizens can influence policy-making.

"It's about promoting postsecondary education, it's about giving the opportunity to students from many countries to live an outstanding experience in Oxford. I did not hesitate for a minute."

The other Canadian winners are: Sarah Burns, University of King's College; James Flynn, University of Toronto; Kazumi Fraser Hoshino-Macdonald, McGill University; Kaleem Hawa, University of Toronto; Adebisi (Debi) Ogunrinde, University of Pennsylvania; Jessica Phillips, University of Toronto; Robert Ragotte, UBC; Zia Saleh, University of Alberta; Carley-Jane Stanton, University of Alberta.