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Fourth-year student a Rhodes Scholarship finalist

Tyler Joswick / Lantern asst. photo editor

Fourth-year Surili Sheth is one step closer to the Rhodes Scholarship. If she wins, she will be the second woman from Ohio State to receive the scholarship since it became available to women in 1976.

The scholarship’s organizers break the country into 16 regions and choose 14 finalists from each region. Sheth is one of 14 chosen from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, and has a chance of being one of two finalists in the region who will win the prestigious award and study at the University of Oxford.

Sheth, studying economics and political science, wasn’t going to apply until her adviser suggested the award to her in an e-mail during the summer. At the time, Sheth said, she was volunteering in the slums of India.

“I was like, ‘Well OK, I can do that. I can work on it this summer when I come back. When is the deadline?'” she said. “And my adviser was like, ‘Oh, it’s in three days.'”

She has focused her work in recent years on improving the quality of life in slum neighborhoods in India, sparked by visits to her family’s home in Gujarat, India. It was in those slums that she completed the lengthy application for the award.

“I was sitting in the back of Seva Café, working on my personal statement and the whole application and everything. The interview was like a week later,” Sheth said. “It was funny because they were asking me about Seva Café, and I was sitting inside it.”

The seeds for her work were planted in summer 2006 — after her junior year in high school — when her classmates from the U.S. took a trip to India.

“I was already in India with my family that summer, but I joined the high school trip,” Sheth said. “Part of it was a service trip to south India to a fishing village that had been hit by the tsunami.”

That summer, Sheth and her classmates met then-President Abdul Kalam.

After her first year at OSU, Sheth went on another family trip to India. She connected with a non-governmental organization in the area and began teaching English to children who lived in a nearby slum.

“I started bonding with the kids and the community and learning about the issues they face every day in health and education,” Sheth said.

During that summer, Sheth took an interest in the social problems of the Indian slums.

“It was really interesting because I saw how many different issues overlap,” Sheth said. “In these communities, you can’t just address health alone and you can’t just address education alone.”

Sheth planned a research project for the following summer.

She returned to India and administered household surveys in several slums to “gauge access, awareness and satisfaction with services provided by NGOs, government and the government-NGO partnerships.”

Those services included education, health and access to clean water.

“One time, I was sitting in the urban resources office. These women came in and they were yelling, ‘There is gutter water coming out of our water pipes! This is horrible! We can’t drink water! We can’t shower! We can’t do anything!'” Sheth said.

Because the NGO in that neighborhood worked with the government, officials quickly solved the problem.

“In the other slum where the NGO isn’t partnered with the government, this takes very long, even when you lodge a formal complaint,” Sheth said.

That summer, Sheth stayed with a host family in a village during the Navratri Festival, which consists of nine nights of dancing.

“They had placed two cots next to each other for me and the host mom to sleep on. The little girl — they’d named her Nancy — she was 3 years old and she insisted on sleeping next to me,” Sheth said. “I remember she woke up in the middle of the night and saw that she had rolled over onto her mom’s cot. So she got really annoyed and rolled back over so she was sleeping next to me.”

Sheth went back to India from January to June this year to research education in India.

“I was helping to develop interactive English modules to go in and help these kids learn basic sets of English vocabulary,” Sheth said.

On campus, Sheth co-founded and serves as co-president for the International Development Coalition, and she is an Undergraduate Research Office peer contact.

Brian Winer, director of the Honors Collegium at OSU, said Sheth is a model student.

“As director of the collegium, I know that Surili has been an outstanding young scholar,” he said. “She’s a great example for the student body to know that, even as a student at Ohio State, you can go out and do great things.”

If Sheth wins the Rhodes Scholarship, she will be the sixth student from OSU to earn it and she will spend the next two years at the University of Oxford to pursue a master’s degree in development studies.

Dana Kuchem, program manager for the Honors Collegium, said Sheth is an accomplished scholar and a genuine person.

“On the bottom of all her e-mails, her tagline that she has is ‘Love all, serve all,'” Kuchem said. “And I think that’s really how she lives her life.” 

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