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. With no police force, 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 who will graduate this May. “When you live in a war zone, everything seems exciting that involves leaving the war zone. But it 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,” with 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.” The 5-foot-10 young man 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 you, or happen 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 like 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 of Public Health to explore health care management and the health of populations. He was awarded a Sommer Scholar scholarship, which provided 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 sites on health administration, ideally in the LGBT arena.