In a tumultuous year, this class of Rhodes Scholars is shaped by the coronavirus

Vijayasundaram Ramasamy is a 2018 graduate of Johns Hopkins University. MUST CREDIT Courtesy of Vijayasundaram Ramasamy via The Washington Post

While leading the team drafting the reopening plan for Kansas’s governor during the covid-19 pandemic, Vijayasundaram Ramasamy faced countless difficult decisions trying to balance public safety and the state’s fragile economy. Often at night he would cry, he said, as he wondered if businesses would fail because of the restrictions, or if people would lose their jobs, or if the stretched-thin county health departments could possibly handle the ongoing strain as the novel coronavirus spread.

But amid all the intense worry of 2020, he recently got to experience a moment of sheer personal elation: Ramasamy was chosen as one of 32 Rhodes scholars, the prestigious academic awards that will cover all expenses for two or three years at the University of Oxford.

The 23-year-old recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University was one of many of the winners whose academic and personal ambitions have been cemented by the pandemic.

One winner studied the mutual aid groups that formed in Detroit during the pandemic, another worked with a hometown Inuit tribal association responding to the outbreak, and one scholar founded organizations to address domestic violence and social isolation in response to the virus.

“The pandemic has obviously laid bare enormous underlying problems in this country, many of which our winners are passionate about addressing,” said Elliot Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust.

Ramasamy said it has been inspiring to see what public-health workers are doing every day with so few resources and such an incredible amount of pressure. “It really solidified for me that I want to understand how people create sustainable health systems around the world and how we can defend government services in the United States.” The pandemic highlighted what was lacking, he said, and how we all need to come together.

Ramasamy is one of a diverse class of scholars, with nearly half either immigrants or the first in their families to attend college, and 22 of them students of color. Their interests include rebuilding Afghanistan, boxing, journalism, jazz, racial justice, manipulating microbots to make sound, supporting foster children, climate change, transportation infrastructure, genetics and ghungroo.

“I think people find it hard, perhaps, to believe there is no affirmative effort on our part to choose such a diverse class,” Gerson said. With 16 committees meeting simultaneously to choose winners from each region of the country, he said he does not know the balance until he gets the 16th and final phone call. “The remarkable personal stories of many of the students and their extraordinary diversity is just a testament to the strength of this country,” he said.

Other winners with connections to the D.C. region include Lillian Ngo Usadi, a midshipman 1st class at the U.S. Naval Academy; Samuel E. Patterson, a senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; Nicolas J.W. Fishman, a senior at Stanford University who is from Washington; Aryemis C. Brown of Maryland, who is in his final year at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Tyrese D. Bender of Virginia who is in his final year at the U.S. Military Academy; and Peter J. Andringa of Virginia, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who works as a data visualization engineer at The Washington Post.

All of the finalists went through the first virtual selection process in the award’s more-than-century-old history, with Zoom calls replacing the traditional (alcohol-free) “cocktail hour” and interviews when finalists meet with one another and their selection committee.

When he heard that he had been chosen, Ramasamy celebrated with his family in Kansas and called his grandmother in India, where he was born and where the family lived in a small village where cows graze in the streets.

His parents always told him that coming to America was like winning the lottery, he said, and that they must give back.

At Hopkins, Ramasamy was on the dean’s list every semester and graduated in three years. “He is a great intellect,” said former Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson, who taught Ramasamy and inspired him to volunteer at the city’s syringe-exchange program, “and a truly good egg.”

Ilil Benjamin, a lecturer at Hopkins, met him in 2017 and said Ramasamy seemed to have the wisdom of an academic in his 50s – someone who understood the messiness and complexities of policymaking, could genuinely empathize with people whose views were different from his, and wasn’t looking for magic bullets. He stood out for his kindness as well, she said, always humble and self-deprecating.

“My friends and colleagues were crying ugly happy tears when he called to tell us he won,” she said. “We’re just so incredibly proud and happy for him.”

At the Baltimore City Health Department, Ramasamy put his heart and tears into every project, said Shelly Choo, the agency’s former chief medical officer who now works for the Maryland Department of Health. “He literally just made things happen,” she said. He improvised when computer glitches complicated training sessions he was leading, synthesized large amounts of information into an easy-to-understand form. And he jumped out of her car when they couldn’t find parking in Annapolis, to sprint to the office on foot so that they delivered a grant application by the deadline.

In Kansas, where Ramasamy is a policy and budget adviser for Gov. Laura Kelly (D), his job was upended by the pandemic. As time went on and he led the plan to reopen things, Benjamin said Ramasamy told her about the tough choices the governor was having to make, such as drawing the line between restaurants and bars. Some bar owners began handing out slices of Wonder Bread with each beer to rebrand themselves as restaurants. “He told me this story to show me he really empathized with owners who had to shut down,” she said, “and business owners pointing out these really arbitrary decisions being made by policymakers.”

At Oxford, Ramasamy plans to pursue a master’s of science degree in comparative social policy and a master’s of public policy degree to learn more about global public health and how to improve government services. “It’s an incredible honor,” he said. “Now I have to figure out how to earn it.”

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