Health policy student wins a Commonwealth Scholarship

Rahul Mediratta knew he was going to attend Oxford University this year. He didn’t know, however, quite how he would raise the $60,000 he needed to cover his tuition and living expenses for the12 months it would take to complete a master’s degree in comparative social policy.

Mediratta never imagined going to Oxford. Last September as he cast about for graduate programs, the fourth-year health policy student had picked other British schools to apply to – but not Oxford. "I never considered it within my reach," said the A student – until professor and mentor Dennis Raphael pressed him. "Who do you think they’re looking for?" Raphael asked. "Just apply." Mediratta did. "I got into Oxford 21 days later." That was last October.

Right: Rahul Mediratta

Nudged by York’s VP Students, the 23-year-old with a cumulative grade point average of 8.23, a long record of volunteering and an impressive publishing portfolio (see his blog) had applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship at the same time he’d applied to Oxford. But it wasn’t until December that he heard anything – and then it was simply that his application had made the Canadian shortlist and would be forwarded to the British selection committee. Three long months later, he heard that he’d been selected as a reserve candidate. Twenty-eight candidates in the whole Commonwealth had been selected to receive the award and eight had been selected as reserve candidates. "I received all the honour, but no money."

Determined to go to Oxford anyway, Mediratta accepted a summer job as a project assistant with the Canadian Institute for Health Information in Ottawa. He was away from home for the first time and squirrelled as much money away as he could by bicycling to work, cooking all his meals and taking few weekend trips back to Toronto. Still, it wasn’t enough.

In August, two weeks before his contract ended, Mediratta was cleaning out his York e-mail account, which he hadn’t accessed for some time. There, in the spam folder – yes, the spam folder – was an e-mail from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. It had arrived six minutes before and said his application had been reconsidered, he had been upgraded to a full candidate, and they hoped he would be prepared to accept a Commonwealth Scholarship. "I thought, ‘I’m not awake, this is not real.’ It felt like an out of body experience. I slowly reread the e-mail and realized it was authentic. Then I thought, ‘breathe and call home.’"

His mom answered. She and his dad were eating lunch. Mediratta asked them to turn on the speaker phone because he had good news. His mother hesitated. "You got an award at work?" "No," he laughed. "Did you get a scholarship?" After Mediratta blurted out that, yes, it was the Commonwealth Scholarship, his mother screamed with delight. "Did you put the speaker phone on? Because I can’t hear Dad’s reaction," said Mediratta. "You can’t hear him because he’s crying," said his mother.

Mediratta’s parents immigrated to Canada from India in 1976. Neither of them has a postsecondary education but they have struggled on his income as a real estate agent to help each of their four Toronto-born children attend university. Mediratta paid for his undergraduate education with student loans and a summer job as a research analyst at the Ontario Ministry of Health & Long-term Care. His parents were willing to do whatever they could – move, take out a loan – to make sure he went to Oxford. Winning the scholarship "was a huge blessing. My parents would not have to incur such a great debt." 

Mediratta begins his adventure Sept. 17 when he leaves for a one-week backpacking trip to Italy before settling down at Oxford. By next year, he hopes to have an MSc in comparative social policy.

Though he is not religious, Mediratta embraces the seva philosophy of his Hindu parents’ guru: You must try your best to serve humanity at every opportunity. He thought he might be a doctor and volunteered at local hospitals to see if he could handle the sight of blood. He could but lost interest in being a health-care provider. Within days of starting at York he discovered where his future lay.

His direction became clear in his first health policy class. Raphael posed this question: "What is the biggest, most direct determinant of personal health?" Smoking? No. Exercise? No. Good diet? No. Finally, Raphael pulled out a $20 bill from his pocket and waved it at the class. "This is," said the prof.

"That single moment completely changed my understanding of what health means," says Mediratta. "One reason it affected me so profoundly is I didn’t grow up in comfort. I realized a lot of things would have been easier if our family had been better off."

Since that early epiphany, Mediratta has become interested in the political as well as the social determinants of health. Government policies on health care, day care, education and affordable housing have a direct impact on population health. At Oxford, Mediratta hopes to delve into the relationship between political ideologies and social policies and explore the growing distinction in the health of populations in social democracies like Sweden and Norway, liberal democracies like Canada, the US and Britain, Christian conservative countries like France and Germany, and former fascist dictatorships like Italy and Nazi Germany.

"What started off as an interest in health care has become an interest in the political science of population health," says Mediratta, who remains compelled to serve and to follow the principle of seva. After Oxford, "I will return to Canada and contribute to the social well being of this country." He hopes to volunteer with Oxfam Canada, work for a research policy institute, earn a PhD and maybe even run for political office. "The more I research the political determinants of health, the more I believe social justice in Canada can be advanced best at the centre of government."

By Martha Tancock, communications officer, Marketing & Communications