Seven soon-to-be Johns Hopkins grads look back on their journeys

Image caption: Soon-to-be-alumni Frederica Lamar, WSE; Jorge Menendez, KSAS/Peabody; Jennifer Campbell, Peabody; Diana Chia (on ladder), Nursing; Katie Botto, KSAS; Jerome Chelliah (in chair), Public Health; and Erik Hamilton, Carey, photographed in Homewood’s Gilman Hall.

Credit: Marshall Clarke

Johns Hopkins students don't usually shrug when they see an opportunity. They seize it, and often turn it into something great.

The word opportunities came up often in recent conversations with a diverse group of students who are approaching the end of their academic journeys here. We learned, not surprisingly, that they came here looking to fulfill ambitions and push themselves in new directions. They were not disappointed, and along the way learned more about themselves and what life has in store for them.

These seven men and women come from different backgrounds and have different worldviews, but what unifies them is the allure of excellence—and a darn good challenge.

Jerome Chelliah spent his first 11 years as a refugee in Sri Lanka, an island country torn apart by years of civil war. Planes would frequently drop bombs near his home, forcing his family to flee to bunkers for safety. Crime and violence were rampant.

Aided by an uncle, Chelliah and his parents emigrated in 2001 to the San Francisco Bay Area. "My parents took a chance and said, We'll go try out America and see if it works," says Chelliah, an MPH candidate at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "When you live in a war zone, everything seems exciting that involves leaving the war zone. But in many ways, America was more of an idea than a country for me."

The transition to life in the United States was far from seamless. Chelliah had to learn English. His parents, who hadn't graduated from high school, couldn't find jobs right away to sustain the family. And, for the first time, Chelliah had to confront an array of prejudices. In Sri Lanka, he says, everyone was poor, but now he lived among affluence. "I had been poor my whole life, but this was the first time I dealt with poverty in a tangible way." He also realized he was now considered a minority and "a person of color," descriptors that brought their own unique realities. And, when he came of age, he says, he realized he was gay.

Chelliah says he had a difficult time expressing to his parents his inner turmoil, for fear he would upset them, as they had sacrificed so much to start over. He turned to food for solace. "I basically ate my feelings," he says. "All I did was eat and study." He entered high school weighing 250 pounds.

"High school was probably the most difficult time of my life," he says. "I had to live life on multiple boundaries of prejudice. It became hard to parse out where the prejudices came from."

In his junior year, Chelliah came to a turning point. He decided to take ownership of his destiny and told himself: Either you can let life happen to you, or happen for you.

"That became my mantra. The very fact that I survived a civil war meant that I must utilize my life for something larger than myself."

He dedicated himself to self-improvement. He found fitness and portion control, and during that summer shed some 40 pounds. As a senior, he applied himself to studies as never before. He enrolled at the University of California, Davis, to pursue a degree in neurobiology, then took a year off to teach in a private high school in Sacramento before going to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. After his third year, he applied to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School to explore health care management and the health of populations. He was named a Sommer Scholar, receiving full tuition and a stipend.

At JHU, Chelliah learned many valuable lessons, he says, such as working as a team on issues much larger than your own.

"For us to have individual triumph, we need to be thinking about collective triumph. That is one big thing I'm taking away from here," says Chelliah, who now will return to UCSF to finish his final year of medical school. After his residency, he says, he has his sights on health administration, ideally in the LGBT arena.

Erik Hamilton describes himself as a bit of an adrenaline junky. "I'm usually not happy unless my hair is on fire," says Hamilton, who, following a career in the military, will earn an MBA from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Hamilton says he spent the majority of his young life looking for trouble, and often found it.

Growing up, he moved around a lot but spent his formative years in the Washington, D.C., area. He approached high school "semi-seriously" and skipped out a lot to wander around Georgetown or the Smithsonian. A self-described wild child, he skirted trouble and applied himself only to topics that interested him, like politics. His respect for his stepfather, a retired Marine, made him consider a career in the military. "I was inspired by his discipline and dedication," he says. "He never pushed me to join the military, but it became something I wanted to be part of."

After basic training, Hamilton was deployed to Iraq to serve with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in and around Basra, where he helped reinforce a prisoner detention facility and support coalition forces. In Fallujah, he was part of a scout sniper platoon tasked with convoy security and roadside bomb interdiction. He spent many days face-to-face with the grim realities of war, with danger lurking behind every corner. What kept him grounded and stable, he says, were his fellow Marines and his relationship with his stepfather, whom he could use as a sounding board.

Following his tour of duty, Hamilton worked for nearly four years with a State Department diplomatic-security contractor based in Baghdad. He says he carried a gun 24/7, ever vigilant for threats. He also found time to complete his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses. By summer 2012, he had had enough and needed to decompress. "I wanted a normal life. In Baghdad, there were constant threats, and I couldn't really have friends or a relationship. Work was my life, with no room for anything else," he says.

He left Baghdad to move to Medellín, Colombia, to open a CrossFit gym with a former co-worker and fellow Marine. The military had given him some leadership and management skills, he says, but he didn't know how to apply them in a civilian, business context. The experience in Colombia made him realize he wanted a future in the business world and thought an MBA would be a good place to start.

Hamilton describes Carey's MBA program as "intense" and "eye-opening." He came to soak up knowledge and ended up drinking from a fire hose of information. In the school's Innovation for Humanity program, he traveled with fellow students to Quito, Ecuador, to help with the expansion of a health care clinic. For one of his capstone projects, he worked on a go-to-market strategy for a company diagnosing ocular trauma on a mobile platform.

Starting this summer, he will work for Medtronic, a global health care solutions company, where he'll be involved in corporate strategy for its patient solutions team. The products the company works on, Hamilton says, help alleviate pain and restore health, allowing for better quality of life.

"I wanted to do something to improve the lives of other people, and I needed to work with people I trust and share the same passion and interests," he says. Some of the products and solutions he works on, he says, could find their way to veterans, including former brothers in arms.

Jennifer Nicole Campbell's passion and career path more or less began with sibling rivalry. Her older brother studied piano and, well, 5-year-old Campbell needed to try her hands at the ivory keys, too. She started weekly lessons at 8, and then, at around 10, took up a second instrument, the violin. Music, she says, intrigued her.

"I was always interested in composing. Even since I was little, I've been writing music just for fun," says Campbell, a Pennsylvania native who this May will receive her Master of Music degree in piano from Peabody. She initially wrote "little" classically influenced piano pieces with fun titles like the "Red Robin Waltz." She would later study with pianist and composer David Auldon Brown at the Music School of Delaware and Darlington Arts Center in Philadelphia. Brown would play for her pieces such as Edvard Grieg's "Holberg Suite," and she sat there mesmerized.

"Whenever he played, I wanted to be in that world," she says. "I thought, What makes that piece work? And how can I put that into my music?"

Campbell says her mother made sure she was exposed to many arts, including dance, painting, and other forms of music, but she always returned to the piano. "With the piano, I knew I had a lot more to offer. I worked harder at it," she says. "I feel my decision to go into music was never really a decision at all. I felt this sense of responsibility, like music and the piano were my calling. I know I'm exactly where I'm meant to be."

Toward the end of high school, Campbell started in earnest her performing career, and before age 18 had four turns as a soloist with large regional orchestras. She then went on trial lessons with teachers at several conservatories. When she met Peabody faculty member Brian Ganz, she says, she knew right away where she wanted to continue her education. "I thought whatever offers come my way, I have to go there. Peabody instantly became my first choice," she says.

A Business of Music class with saxophonist Gary Louis helped inspire her to join Creative Access, through which Peabody volunteers perform interactive music at community organizations, hospices, and schools. She started as site coordinator and later helped lead the expansion of Creative Access, which this year will perform some 80 concerts.

"Performances are a big part of every musician's life, especially now, when you need to create opportunities," she says. "It's a really special thing because we establish relationships with all of these sites. One woman we played for had never heard opera before; she was startled, and then had tears in her eyes. We're used to playing for each other. But at moments like this, you can see how much music affects someone."

Campbell says that Peabody and its faculty have helped her become a more consistent performer, and to be a more efficient planner for recital programs. She's currently looking at teaching positions in the Philadelphia area, and will tour to promote her first CD, a collection of master works and originals that comes out in May.

She plans to study film composition next fall in New York with Michael Bacon, an accomplished composer for film and television (and the older brother of actor Kevin Bacon).

"I've always been interested in scoring, and I want to see where that takes me. I'm really excited about the prospect," she says. "Scoring a two-hour movie would be a challenge, but it's something I look forward to doing one day."

When you're young, peers sometimes pigeonhole you. She's the braniac. He's the moody musician type. Austin, Texas, native Kathryn Botto was the girl captivated by Asian languages and cultures.

A babysitting neighbor introduced Botto to Japanese culture—specifically, popular TV—and the two would make flash cards to learn Japanese words and numbers. When Botto watched Japanese soap operas, she eventually was able to follow the dialogue.

In seventh grade, Botto began formal Japanese language study and continued it throughout high school. The summer between her sophomore and junior years, she traveled to rural Japan to participate in a study program. In her senior year, she took up Chinese. She says some teased her on the East Asia fixation. "But as I got older, I told myself, that is what makes me unique," she says.

She chose Johns Hopkins for the Krieger School's East Asian Studies program, which, she thought, focused on all the countries in the region equally. A triple major in sociology, international studies, and East Asian studies, Botto wrote her senior thesis on ethnic politics in East Asia. She took every opportunity to learn about the region, she says, with the goal of a career in international security and conflict resolution. She took language classes in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, and now considers herself somewhat fluent in Mandarin and Japanese, while still learning Korean. "Korean is very difficult, learning all the vocabulary. And the pronunciation I find a little harder," she says.

She studied for a semester in Nanjing, China, and held internships in Tokyo, where she did translations for an Internet-based company, and in Guizhou, China, where she split her time between Web development and teaching English in a rural school. The last two summers, Botto undertook research internships at the Brookings Institution and U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, where she assisted in research for an annual report to Congress.

"I feel Johns Hopkins has been responsible for all the opportunities I've had," she says. "I've had so many great professors here who have helped me."

She was recently awarded a Fulbright Korean Studies Graduate Degree grant, which fully funds two years of study in Korea, starting in March 2016. This fall, she will be a policy research fellow at the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS.

Attending Johns Hopkins allowed Jorge Menendez not only to pursue his two passions, music and science, but to study alongside one of the most important guitarists of our time. As a teenager, the Bethesda, Maryland, native felt a career in music might be his destiny. He had taken up guitar at age 10 and found himself a quick learner. He gravitated to classical guitar and later jazz works. However, for Menendez, the son of an engineer/economist and a clinical psychologist, math and science also had their allure. He particularly enjoyed puzzles. When it came time to decide on a college, Menendez focused on schools with double degree programs. He ultimately chose Johns Hopkins for its strength in research and the reputation of Peabody's guitar program. He'll earn a bachelor of arts degree in cognitive science from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and a bachelor of music degree in classical guitar performance from Peabody. Looking to take advantage of the research opportunities Johns Hopkins presents, Menendez applied for and earned a Luigi Burzio Undergraduate Research Award in Psychological and Brain Sciences to work in the Visual Thinking Lab alongside Jonathan Flombaum. He used the grant to look into how spatial working memory recalls the location of an object when the environment around it has changed. Using computational modeling techniques, the experiments have helped shed some light on how short-term memory works. He presented the findings in May 2014 at the annual Vision Sciences Society conference.

Menendez says the experience opened doors and gave him a newfound confidence in his ability as a scientist. In the fall of his junior year, he earned a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, a merit-based award that supports undergraduates who show exceptional promise for a research career in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. He would later be short-listed for a Rhodes Scholarship.

"Before I came to Johns Hopkins, I never really thought about professional research and all it entails," he says. "But I've come to enjoy the experience of pushing science forward and making progress. I'm intrigued by how you organize what you find into a coherent answer or theory."

At Peabody, he studied under internationally recognized master guitarist Manuel Barrueco, and was his first dual-degree student. Menendez has now focused on a life of science, but he plans to continue playing guitar and perform when he can. The realization that his future might be in a lab or academic setting was both affirming and bittersweet, he says. "I spent so much time in Mount Vernon surrounded by talented musicians, and I realize I might never have that community again, where all around me are people talking about music," he says. "But I'm happy with my direction."

After completing his dual degree, Menendez plans to pursue a doctorate to conduct research in computational cognitive science and teach at the university level. He will begin studies this fall at University College London.

Before Californian Diana Wu Chia came east to start a new career, she had no inkling that a prison placement and a knitting circle were in the cards—let alone would so profoundly impact her life.

Chia left her Bay Area home to follow a calling at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

After earning a degree in history and business administration at the University of California, Berkeley, she had worked as a financial auditor for KPMG in San Francisco. "I was good at it, but after a few years I re-evaluated my goals and found myself wanting to better serve people and the community," she says. As a child, Chia had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian or pediatrician but had set those thoughts aside. Then they bubbled back up to the surface. "I've always had this undercurrent of interest in health, and I decided I should pursue my predilection," she says.

Chia explored her options and found nursing an ideal fit. She earned the required science prerequisites and then applied to the School of Nursing's accelerated bachelor's program. She was excited about the prospect of living on the East Coast and studying at such a prestigious institution. "And Johns Hopkins had a really great alignment with my interests in community and the health of urban and vulnerable populations," says Chia, who will earn her MSN degree from the School of Nursing this May.

In 2014, she served health rotations at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup and its associated men's prison down the street. "And I learned so much," she says. "Prison populations have a disproportionate amount of minorities and those with mental health issues. Many of these people grew up feeling like second-class citizens. Prisons reflect how we have failed as a society."

She worked with a nurse practitioner and physician's assistant on chronic and urgent care needs multiple times a week. Chia likened the prison environment to a low-resource setting. The available food was nutritionally inadequate and supplies often lacking.

Looking for international opportunities, Chia traveled for three weeks in early 2014 to Managua, Nicaragua, to research and write training materials for low-resource child care centers and orphanages. Later that year, she went with fellow students and alumni to Haiti to work in a clinic in the rural mountain area. She estimates that in just five days, her team saw 800 patients. "I was able to practice my assessment skills on symptoms and conditions that would have been caught a lot earlier in the United States, such as severe heart murmurs. On one man, I could feel his chest vibrating. Many had similar chronic care issues, such as hypertension and diabetes. It was interesting and challenging work."

Last year, Chia started Knitting Neighbors Together, a project to create hats, scarves, and mittens for the homeless in the Baltimore area. The project pulls in people from the local artistic and creative community to volunteer their time as knitters while creating awareness. Chia learned how to knit from her grandmother, and was inspired by the men she saw sleeping outside on cold nights. She launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, and to date the knitters have distributed 64 hats. Currently, the project is stockpiling for next winter. "The response has been so amazing. People came from as far away as Annapolis to knit with us," she says.

Chia plans to stay in Baltimore to continue the work of Knitting Neighbors Together, which recently earned nonprofit status, and to work in a community health clinic to continue serving vulnerable populations.

Freshman year was a bit of a culture shock for Frederica Lamar, an environmental engineering major from Atlanta. She found college a hard transition and even doubted whether she was prepared. She considered transferring, but her mom said, Give it one more semester. She listened.

Next came an around-the-world adventure.

Lamar early on took advantage of opportunities to study abroad. In the intersession of her freshman year, she traveled to Ghana to learn about the country's slave trade history. In her sophomore year, she traveled to Germany, where she toured a BMW plant to observe the company's use of robotics. Her junior year, she went to Brazil to learn about the slave trade in South America, with time out for sightseeing tours of Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. In the summer after her sophomore year, she interned at the University of Hawaii at Hilo's Marine Science Laboratory to conduct water quality studies. Not one to let a break go by without hopping on a plane, she interned at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Spokane, Washington, in summer 2014 to look into the health impact of coal mining.

"I've certainly developed a love for traveling," she says. "I knew I wanted to study abroad in college and explore other cultures, but I didn't quite realize how many possibilities there were."

Lamar's love of science began at a math/science magnet high school in Atlanta. In her senior year, she entered MIT's Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program, a rigorous six-week residential academic enrichment program for promising high school seniors interested in careers in science and engineering. The program featured crash courses in calculus, physics, writing, and architecture. For the final project, she designed a cardboard-and-tape structure that had to stand without anything holding it up.

Lamar says that when it came time to pick a college, she toured campuses on the East Coast, and the visit to Johns Hopkins stood out. "I felt comfortable here, and I fell in love with the campus," she says.

Looking back, Lamar says that Johns Hopkins instilled in her leadership qualities she didn't know she had. She became president of the school's chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and of the Xi Tau Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. A Gates Scholar, she's a member of Students Educating and Empowering for Diversity, and a mentor with the Johns Hopkins Office of Multicultural Affairs' Mentoring Assistance Peer Program, which serves underrepresented freshmen.

Lamar has been accepted into an MSPH program in global environmental health sciences at Tulane University and will start her studies there in the fall. As for what else lies ahead, more travel, she says, and hopefully a job with the CDC or a water quality project abroad.