Senior Takhona Hlatshwako has been named UNC’s 52nd Rhodes scholar, joining a long list of Tar Heels awarded with the prestigious honor.
Beginning next fall, Hlatshwako will participate in a fully funded one-year interdisciplinary master’s degree program in international health and tropical medicine at the University of Oxford.
The Rhodes scholarship allows students from around the world to pursue a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford, forming a cohort of approximately 100 scholars.
Hlatshwako said she applied for the scholarship to further her education and combine her love for studying with service.
“I didn’t just want to study global health, I also wanted to do something that I felt was worthwhile,” she said.
Hlatshwako is originally from the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland. She is one of the first from her home country and the 33rd Morehead-Cain scholar to receive the Rhodes scholarship. She was selected through the Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Eswatini Scholarship under the Rhodes Trust.
Hlatshwako said growing up in Eswatini and watching HIV spread quickly among people she knew directly affected her drive toward the field of public health. Witnessing the virus's effects on others was one of the reasons Hlatshwako said she wanted to invest her time in learning more about public health.
“There’s this philosophy called Ubuntu, which means, ‘I am because we are,’ and that was really a huge part of my upbringing,” Hlatshwako said.
She said regardless of who she spoke with in her home community, everyone felt like family and cared for one another.
“Equity may not benefit you directly, but it benefits other people,” Hlatshwako said.
One of the challenges Hlatshwako faced at UNC was being away from home, she said, without people who share her culture or language. Coming from a small country and close-knit community, Hlatshwako said she is happy to be able to share her story with more people through such a prestigious program.
“It really is such an honor to be able to represent my country,” Hlatshwako said.
After her time at Oxford, Hlatshwako said, she hopes to get her doctorate and then work in global health and research, focusing specifically on low-income countries.
Hlatshwako said that throughout her time at UNC and applying for the Rhodes scholarship, she was inspired by numerous professors and advisers, who made her interested in research and wanted her to succeed.
Melanie Studer, assistant dean for undergraduate programs at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said she conducted Hlatshwako's interview when she first applied to Gillings.
Studer sent The Daily Tar Heel excerpts from a letter of recommendation that she wrote for Hlatshwako.
“A sophomore at the time, (Hlatshwako) spoke with conviction and gratitude about her journey from Eswatini to UNC-Chapel Hill and her goal of studying public health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health,” Studer wrote. “My sense then was that Takhona was on a path to becoming one of our next great public health leaders.”
Studer said she was also Hlatshwako’s instructor for three courses — Foundations of Public Health and Introduction to the U.S. Health System I and II — and worked with her outside of the classroom as well.
“It has been a tremendous pleasure getting to know and work with Takhona,” Studer said in her letter of recommendation. “She has affirmed my initial impressions and consistently exceeded my expectations.”
Julie DeVoe, director of scholar advising for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, also worked with Hlatshwako within the Morehead-Cain program. She said she is impressed by the way Hlatshwako has engaged in academics and leadership at UNC.
“She’s just been such an incredible student leader in the Gillings School of Public Health,” DeVoe said.
Hlatshwako said that during her time at Oxford, she is most looking forward to learning about other people’s stories — like what brought them to the university and what their dreams are. She also looks forward to collaborating with other students.
“There’s this quote that I like that says, ‘Big dreams are easier to achieve than small dreams because big dreams attract much better people,’ and I think that’s what comes to mind when I think of the Rhodes community,” Hlatshwako said.
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