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Ashwini Vasanthakumar ’04 lived in Sri Lanka, Zambia, and Papua New Guinea before her family settled in Canada and she came to Harvard. Now, she’s on her way to England.
Vasanthakumar, who was born in Sri Lanka but is now a Canadian citizen, is one of two Rhodes Scholars from the province of Ontario to win the prestigious scholarship this year.
She graduated magna cum laude with highest honors in Social Studies this past spring, and is now working on a Master’s Degree in political theory at the University of Toronto.
She said she feels very fortunate to have won the accolade, especially considering the caliber of her competition.
“It came as a surprise just because the other interviewees were very impressive,” Vasanthakumar said.
The Rhodes Scholarship allows each recipient to study for two years at the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom, for free. Eleven are earmarked for Canada each year.
She said that 13 other applicants from Ontario were called for interviews, but only she and one other contender were selected for the honor. The panel that interviewed her, which included a supreme court judge, asked questions that ranged in topic from Vasanthakumar’s plan of study to her views on multiculturalism, she said.
Vasanthakumar’s academic interests have focused on issues concerning refugees, asylum and citizenship.
Her senior honors thesis, entitled “Speaking for the Homeland: the Political Activism of Tamils in Toronto,” dealt with the question of whether Tamils—a minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka and India—living in a different part of the world can claim to represent the people of their homeland through activism.
At Oxford, Vasanthakumar’s studies will examine the differences between citizens and non-citizens.
“I plan to look at the legitimate grounds for exclusion from a political community,” she said.
Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government Nancy L. Rosenblum, who taught Vasanthakumar in an identity politics class, said she thinks the Rhodes Scholarship was well-deserved because of the recipient’s unique approach to her area of study.
“What makes Ashwini so extraordinary is her real mix of scholarship and human rights activism,” Rosenblum said.
Anya Bernstein, director of undergraduate studies in Social Studies, noted that Vasanthakumar was the top-ranked graduate in social studies last year and that she is the second Social Studies concentrator to win the Rhodes Scholarship this year.
“She’s a wonderful student and a wonderful person and it’s thrilling to see her get the Rhodes,” Bernstein said.
Rosenblum said that in addition to her academic qualifications, Vasanthakumar’s personal qualities make her particularly remarkable.
“She’s very humble and has just an enormous amount of empathy and humility,” Rosenblum said.
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