BHS Alumna Swathi Srinivasan Wins Rhodes Scholarship
March 2, 2021
Swathi Srinivasan, a 2017 BHS graduate and current senior at Harvard University, received news in November that she would join a distinguished list of recipients of the celebrated Rhodes Scholarship, a list that includes Bill Clinton, Cory Booker and Rachel Maddow.
Each year, 32 U.S. college students are selected as Rhodes Scholars. Students are chosen not only for outstanding academic achievement, but also for their commitment to their community and their potential for leadership in their fields.
As a Rhodes Scholar, Swathi will join students from over 60 other countries and begin her graduate studies at the University of Oxford in England next fall.
Swathi is earning a double major at Harvard in social studies and the history of science.
“My focus field in those two majors is the history and origin of inequality in public health and global health outcomes, with a focus on Latin American public health,” Swathi said. “I’m writing a thesis now on the history of inequality in Brazil and its relationship with how Brazil’s handling the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Swathi’s current focus on Brazil’s public health system stemmed from an interest in the HIV and opioid epidemics in Ohio and Massachusetts. Her research then brought her to England and Portugal, where she investigated their responses to both crises.
During her time in Portugal, Swathi found a passion for learning about public health and global health systems. When a professor reached out to see if any undergraduates wanted to take a class taught at the School of Public Health (University of São Paulo), she applied, was accepted, and spent most of Jan. 2020 in Brazil studying HIV as part of a field and research course.
“I was looking at this really amazing country with… one of the largest, if not the largest, universal healthcare systems in the world that has a lot to teach us in the United States since we’ve barely been able to accomplish Medicare, let alone Medicare for all,” Swathi said. “From there, I was like, ‘I’m going to write my thesis on how Brazil approached HIV versus the United States, which country had the most successful response, why was it successful, and a lot of research on Brazil’s public healthcare system.”
“I was supposed to be in Brazil for the entirety of the summer, but then the pandemic hit, and I was also going through a difficult medical time that required me to stay in Boston,” she said. “So, I shifted all my research from HIV to COVID-19 and understanding what the strengths and weaknesses of Brazil’s response is, given that now, it has the third highest number of cases and deaths in the world, which is disproportionately affecting its marginalized populations.”
As for other research, Swathi is currently involved in a project on the opioid epidemic in Ohio. She also studied foreign affairs as part of the Secretary of State Project, which traces the impact of every secretary of state since Kissinger on U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
In addition, she researched the socioeconomics of violence in Brazilian favelas and the relationship of public health outcomes to inequality and the elections that put Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, into power.
Beyond these projects, Swathi does advocacy work addressing the opioid epidemic and chaired the Policy Program, the largest student think tank in the U.S., at the Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics. She is also pursuing a minor in Chemistry and is writing a second thesis on synthesizing a drug molecule for chemotherapy.
Swathi explained that she has always had an interest in the intersection between science and policy.
“I researched Alzheimer’s while I was in high school, and I was always interested in the inequities [of] medicine and disease,” she said. “For example, why is it that India has lower rates of Alzheimer’s cases than the United States? What would cause this difference epigenetically?”
“But then I started thinking: do I want to be the person that synthesizes the drug that cures Alzheimer’s, or do I want to be the person that makes sure everyone gets it? Because what we’re seeing right now, even in the COVID-19 pandemic and in all health crises, is that vulnerable or marginalized populations are always the last to receive the care that they need,” she continued. “And who’s going to advocate for them?”
“A lot of these medical problems are really socioeconomic and political problems too,” Swathi said. “I haven’t fully decided on whether I’m going to be a medical professional who does policy or a policymaker who understands science, but either way I’m glad to be at the intersection of health and society.”
At the University of Oxford next year, Swathi intends to pursue a Master of Science in Global Health Science and Epidemiology and Tropical Medicine as well as in Comparative Social Policy.
BHS teachers were not surprised that Swathi was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. They witnessed her potential for academic excellence, community service and leadership when she was in high school.
“Swathi is a sponge,” social studies teacher Pam Ogilvy said. “She just sees something and, not only does she get it, but she can make connections to current events, to science and to math… She is so willing to help out kids who don’t have the same brain that she has.”
“She’s a bad***!” she laughed.
The first time Ogilvy met Swathi, she could already see the student’s passion for learning. As a freshman, Swathi took a placement test for AP European History. However, she had missed the cut-off score. She then emailed Ogilvy, the department head at the time, to request a meeting and see what she got wrong.
When they went over the test, they found that Swathi actually aced it; she just didn’t erase her answers properly.
“I was taken aback by her confidence,” Ogilvy said. “She didn’t want to set up a meeting with me to complain; she genuinely wanted to know, ‘what did I miss, what can I do better, I don’t want to start high school off on the wrong foot… It was so earnest. That was my first encounter with her.”
But beyond academics, Ogilvy was also impressed with Swathi’s character.
“Her resume and credentials speak volumes, but there’s so much more to her. You get lost in conversation with Swathi. And the conversation is balanced. She wants to know about you, she wants to know about what makes people tick,” Ogilvy said.
“I remember her senior year there were a couple of times when she would come and eat lunch with me, and she would talk to me like we were old friends,” she laughed.
Chemistry teacher Kim Peoples also told The Beachcomber that the most memorable thing about Swathi was her amicable personality.
“Of course she was brilliant, but when I think of Swathi, I think of the person who would roll her eyes at my bad jokes, who would talk to me about classic rock, and who would invite me to her classical Indian dance performances,” Peoples said. “And [she] would just kind of hang out and chill and talk about real things outside of class.”
“Sometimes when someone is that gifted, that brilliant and that capable, sometimes their interpersonal skills are a bit lacking,” Peoples continued. “[Swathi is] the furthest thing from that, just so down-to-earth and able to laugh, and able to connect with her teachers not just intellectually but as real people.”
“It was never about the score or the grade–it was about the experience,” Peoples said. “And I think when you have that approach to life, things like scores and grades kind of naturally fall into place.”
Student Activities Coordinator Craig Alexander also saw her excel as a student in his photography class and as a representative on Student Council, rising to the role of Class President in her senior year.
“The thing she still talks about is the connections and relationships she was able to build as she tutored people,” Alexander said. “She’s big on helping others.”
Alexander explained what it was like to teach Swathi as a high school student.
“Anything she pursues, she has a passion for,” he said. “She was a brilliant student, worked very hard and was very passionate about public education, and being here [at Beachwood].”
Peoples also admires Swathi’s passion for learning.
“An episode of Grey’s Anatomy got her thinking about Alzheimer’s,” Peoples said. “When she is intrigued or passionate about something, she just doesn’t stop until she has solved it.”
Each teacher interviewed revealed that Swathi continues to keep in touch with them even today.
When Swathi received the Rhodes Scholarship, Ogilvy reached out.
“I was like, ‘Of course you’re a Rhodes Scholar, like, of course!’” Ogilvy said. “And her exact response was, ‘We did it.’ It wasn’t like, ‘I did it, I’m one of the smartest people in the world!’, it was, ‘We did it.’”
“One of the most rewarding parts of teaching is when your students come back or send you that email and let you know all the amazing things that are happening,” Peoples said. “And the fact that they still keep in touch kind of makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I was a part of that person’s life. I was a part of that person’s journey,’ so it’s really special when students keep in touch in that way.”
Swathi still highly values the relationships she had with her high school teachers, stating that BHS staff members inspired her to learn.
“Something about Beachwood is that teachers are [so] dependable and just so eager to encourage our curiosities,” Swathi said. “I remember I had a science project that I took to the International Science Fair…that started as this random moment in [physics] class but continued because of the investment that someone like Mr. Lerner had in me.”
“[The same goes] for conversations about politics with Ms. O, Mr. Deegan and Ms. Buddenhagen, conversations about chemistry with Ms. Peoples, and about music with Ms. DeViney and Ms. Goldman,” she continued…. “They’re always so eager to connect with students and foster our curiosities.”
“So when I got to Harvard, where I could build upon those curiosities with all the resources in the world, I felt like I had the freedom to because I was always encouraged to ask questions, and I was never told that I wouldn’t be able to answer them, or with the right resources, that I couldn’t,” Swathi added.
Swathi encourages students to seek out mentorship from professors while in college.
“I think people in high school are so eager to go out and fly, but you realize how much the assistance you’ve received up until this point actually helps you,” Swathi said. “And that kind of support is really only built upon at college if you seek it out actively.”
“It was a difficult thing for me, because I always tried to be ‘Miss Independent’…but I got further when I sought mentorship and when I sought help for things I needed help for, and realized it’s not a burden to ask questions,” she continued.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to have [professors who are] just a building away or a few miles from you, and to be able to just go talk to them,” Swathi added. “And so, I think the first step is to engage in those conversations.”
Swathi also discussed the importance of mental health and seeking out time and space for yourself when the school workload becomes heavy.
“High school was a lot more structured, in that you were up early in the morning, you were out of school at a certain time, your extracurriculars [and sports lasted] a few hours if you chose to do that and then you would come home and you’d repeat it all over again for the following four years,” she said.
“College isn’t like that,” Swathi continued. “[In] college, you could take a class at 1 P.M. and you could wake up at like 12:45 and run over. That means you might feel like you have more time, but you can also waste a lot more time.”
To manage this problem, Swathi leaves out space for free time at least once or twice a week. She gives herself time for at least an hour of television daily, sometimes with friends, so that there is always space in her schedule to relax.
Swathi reflected on how helpful studying in groups was for her as well.
“I would spend my evenings with friends, working,” Swathi said. “[It helped me a lot to be around] people to encourage [me] who [were] struggling in the same ways [I was], because I didn’t struggle alone.”
“But that said, everyone deals with their own mental health differently,” she added. “Some people like solitude a little bit more. Like for me, when I was going through a lot of medical stuff, I definitely spent a lot more time alone. I did a lot of reading, painting, sketching, and I played guitar, and those activities…really centered me without having to overwork me.”
“That was a very difficult time in my life, and I think I needed the space and to be away from the scrutiny of other people,” she continued.
On the other hand, Swathi appreciates the friendships she was able to build upon at Harvard, and encourages BHS seniors to seek out those relationships in college despite how scary a new environment might be.
“I was eager to find people who would relate to Ohio and know what a buckeye or a peanut-butter ball was, but I also wanted to meet the kids from Maine, Florida, India, England and South Africa–people who came from different walks of life than I did,” Swathi said.
“And as opposed to being afraid of those differences, I think embracing them is the most beautiful part of being in college: learning about the wealth of experience that people had prior to college that somehow [brought you all to] the same place,” she added.