Krishna takes a memorable Rhode to elite scholarship

One telephone call changed everything.

Sitting down to dinner with her mother on Saturday night, only hours after her official Rhodes Scholar candidate interview a few blocks away, Saumya Krishna’s phone rang. She knew the caller, but not the outcome.

Answering, she got word: She had been named among 11 Canadian members of the 2014 class of Rhodes Scholars.

“I was overjoyed and honoured,” Krishna said on Tuesday morning, still buzzing from the news, “and almost speechless.”

With 83 new members from around the world named this year, Rhodes is the world’s pre-eminent graduate student award, offering two years of all-expenses-paid postgraduate study at Oxford University. Its 110-year tradition includes three Nobel Prize winners, as well as former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner and former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

“I am very humbled by this. I was surrounded by exceptionally talented finalists, who were also down-to-earth and genuine people,” she said. “In the few days since the interview (last weekend), I’ve realized the Rhodes Scholarship is beyond anything that can be ‘won’ or ‘deserved.’ It is a gift. I feel very fortunate to have been selected for it. I know a lot of responsibility comes with an opportunity, a privilege such as this.

“I am still thinking about how to live up to it.”

Born in India, Krishna, BHSc’13, immigrated to Canada when she was 3 – living in Vancouver and, later, Ottawa.

As time to pick a university drew near, she visited a number of institutions across the country. Only at Western, however, did she find a place that “felt at home.”

“It was the community, the warmth that was really special to me,” Krishna said. “It really felt like home. The people were open, and immensely helpful. Western felt like it was a real student-centred environment.”

She arrived on campus with her mind set on medicine and “a solid four-year plan on how to get there.”

That plan didn’t survive her first year thanks, in part, to Health Studies professor Jessica Polzer’s Social Determinations of Health course. “That class was such a revelation for me; I realized how much that type of discussion inspired me,” she said. “I wanted to branch out and explore new fields.”

Since that experience, Krishna embraced the liberal-arts education ideal throughout her time at Western.

“Undergrad is such a valuable opportunity to open your mind, explore new horizons and things you have never explored before. There is always time to specialize later,” she said. “I like to look at an issue from many different perspectives – a critical perspective, a structural, a feminist, even a philosophical perspective.

“Having those lenses in your toolkit helps you understand the nuances of an issue.”

For her success, Krishna credited “an incredible support system of mentors, family and friends – I am so grateful to them – and the unyielding passion to engage in public issues and make an impact.”

Krishna credits many for this opportunity, an accomplishment she calls “truly a community effort.”

In fact, her list of thank-yous is equaled only by her list of accomplishments: Sociology professors Anton Allahar, Charles Levine, Tom Murphy and Wolfgang Lehmann; Health Studies professors Jessica Polzer and Ken Kirkwood; Nursing professor Bev Leipert; Faculty of Health Sciences Dean’s Office; Political Science professor Richard Vernon; English professor Joel Faflak; Scholars Electives coordinator Rebecca Smith; Western Residence Life, especially Andreas Clesle, “who has been a huge role model”; and the scholarship team at the School of Postgraduate and Doctoral Studies.

“We have no doubt she will use this opportunity as a platform to make meaningful contributions to the world,” said Jim Weese, Health Sciences dean.

While her time at Western is complete, the experience won’t soon leave her.

“I’ll miss the people most at Western,” she admitted. “These were the best conversations, some of the greatest conversations of my life.”

Next up, Krishna plans to take some time off and travel for the next few months. She’ll join Oxford afterward to study sociology with a focus on globalization.

“On a personal level, I think finding purpose is important,” she said. “My philosophy has been to regularly set goals that excite me and that can eventually contribute to public impact, and then put 200 per cent into achieving them – there is no substitute for discipline and hard work.

“I also think enthusiasm, positivity and kindness are always in fashion.”

Predictably, the list of Western honours and accomplishments for Krishna, the university’s 22nd Rhodes Scholar, is impressive.

Awarded Western’s prestigious Richard and Jean Ivey Family President’s Entrance Scholarship, Krishna holds the title of a Western National Scholar. She was president of the student group Rebuilding Health in Rwanda, a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences Students’ Council, production manager of the Western Undergraduate Research Journal and a volunteer facilitator for the Violence Prevention Program. Named among Canada’s Next 36 in 2011, she was a co-founder of the Youth Social Innovation Capital Fund, helping provide early-stage financing to young social entrepreneurs.

Upon graduation, Krishna was named a Gold Medal Winner at Spring 2013 Convocation for highest average of any graduating Health Sciences student in an Honors Specialization Scholar’s Electives module. She has mentored FHS National Scholarship recipients and students in the Scholars Electives program in incoming classes behind hers, as well as participated in Alternative Spring Break.

She worked as a community service learning leader, responsible for coordinating large scale civic engagement opportunities on campus, and as a residence advisor.

In high school, Krishna pursued both her academic and extracurricular interests, earning the Governor General’s Academic Medal for the highest graduating average, the Elmwood Golden ‘E’ Award for Student Engagement and the University of Toronto National Book Award. In 2008, she took part in the Shad Valley program, co-leading her team to develop a product that addressed the water needs of rural communities in Africa. This business plan won the national RBC Shad Entrepreneurship Cup for the Best Overall Project.

She enjoys Classical Indian dance, travelling and learning new languages.