Baker College junior Anjali Bhatla is among 54 college students nationwide named 2016 Truman Scholars, one of the most prestigious and selective scholarships in higher education.
Students are selected based on their record of leadership, public service and academic achievement and their likelihood of becoming public leaders. Each Truman Scholarship provides up to $30,000 toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programs to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership.
“Anjali’s vision and passion to lead in the public sector and her significant records of public service, leadership and academic achievement on campus and in the community maker her an ideal Truman Scholar,” said Danika Brown, director of curriculum and fellowships for the Center for Civic Leadership.
Candidates for the Truman Scholarship go through a rigorous, multistage selection process. The 775 candidates for this year’s award were nominated by 305 colleges and universities — a record number of applications and institutions, according to the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.
“I was honestly completely shocked,” Bhatla said of being named a Truman Scholar. “After meeting all of the other finalists at the interview and hearing their incredible stories, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to be given this opportunity, and I hope to use the resources the foundation offers me to further my interests and experience in health policy.
“More than the funding, I am incredibly excited to be a part of the Truman community, which will provide me with the connections, support and resources I need to fulfill my aspirations as a future public health policy professional.”
Bhatla is double-majoring in health sciences and policy studies and has a passion to reduce global health disparities. She is a State Farm Youth Advisory Board Member, a Rice Distinguished Trustee awardee and a National Coca-Cola Scholar. She founded the Rice chapter of the END7 campaign, an international advocacy campaign that aims to raise awareness and funds for the seven most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Through her work with END7, the National END7 Advisory Board and Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Bhatla advocates for policies that can reduce the global burden of disease caused by NTDs. She was awarded a Loewenstern Fellowship to pursue international service work in Nicaragua. While there she was awarded a grant from Foundations for Sustainable Development to implement a project to train community health leaders to provide public health outreach in their own neighborhoods and establish a community-driven health literacy program. A Rice-Baylor Medical Scholar, Bhatla plans to pursue an M.D./Master of Public Health dual degree and ultimately develop and implement policies that help make health care systems more equitable and efficient.
She has been working with Jennifer Herricks, a postdoctoral fellow in disease and poverty at the Baker Institute, and Peter Hotez, a fellow in disease and poverty at the Baker Institute, on neglected tropical diseases since her sophomore year, focusing on policies to increase global investment in NTD reduction.
On campus, Bhatla is also involved in the Student Association, the Rice Pre-Medical Society, the Alternative Spring Break Program and the Baylor College of Medicine Patient Discharge Initiative.
Bhatla said her deep interest public health took root long before she came to Rice.
“I am from the Rio Grande Valley, which is situated on the southern border of Texas and is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the U.S.,” she said. “When I was in the sixth grade, there was a dengue outbreak, and I remember being told to be careful going outside because of the risk of getting the disease from mosquitoes. My freshman year at Rice, I heard a talk by Dr. Peter Hotez, and this is when I realized that dengue was a neglected tropical disease, or one of 17 illnesses that are said to affect those living on less than $1.90 a day.”
These diseases are estimated to affect more than 1 billion people worldwide, Bhatla said, and she was appalled by the injustice that these diseases are completely overlooked.
“Sophomore year, I started working at the Baker Institute, and through my research, I understood how the burden of NTDs in economically disadvantaged areas perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” she said. “There’s a huge focus on women’s health, education, immigration and foreign policy, with billions of dollars invested in these issues, while NTDs receive a paltry amount of resources.”
NTDs are related to all of these issues because NTDs impair cognitive development and disproportionately affect women and immigrants, Bhatla said. When countries become fragile and conflict-ridden, NTDs increase in prevalence and contribute to continued destabilization of these countries, she said.
“All of this has convinced me that unless we do something to address the burden of disease that NTDs cause, it will be extremely difficult for developing countries to progress forward. NTDs also affect the poorest of the poor in the U.S., over 15 million Americans, and when I read literature on the existence of NTDs in pockets of poverty in developed countries, I understand the raw reality of this — because the Rio Grande Valley is one of those places. It is the awareness that I am advocating for people all over the world that grew up in places just like my hometown that drives me to be a champion for the control of diseases of poverty.”
The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 as the federal memorial to the 33rd president and is supported by a special trust fund in the U.S. Treasury. In addition to funding for graduate school, recipients receive priority admission at some premier graduate schools, career counseling, leadership training and special internship opportunities with the federal government.
Bhatla will receive her award in a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum May 29.