UA student Abhijay Murugesan is passionate about emergency medicine and public service and knows that his future will likely be a combination of both.
The fourth-year student, who will graduate in May 2020, was recently selected as a recipient of the Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive national award for students planning to serve the public in some way. In Murugesan’s case that is by becoming a doctor in emergency medicine.
“I showed people early on that I have a passion, I have motivation, I work hard so they invested in me, and I’m happy to keep showing that I want that investment to pay off, because I really care about this stuff, and the more I can learn and contribute back to the community the better,” Murugesan said.
Murugesan is majoring in public health and molecular and cellular biology, with a minor in biochemistry. He is also in the University of Arizona Honors College, participated in the UA’s KEYS Research Internship program, was a National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholar, and was named a Flinn Scholar and a National Merit Scholar after graduating as valedictorian of Cibola High School in Yuma.
The Truman Scholarship is given by the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and goes to roughly 60 students across the country who want to have careers in public service. The scholarship provides $30,000 for students to attend graduate school and also includes professional development.
Tough national competition
Murugesan first learned about the scholarship through an Honors College email, and although he thought it was a long shot, he decided to apply anyway. “The more I looked at the Truman, the more I felt that I actually matched it, and I thought you know what, I’ll give it a shot,” Murugesan said. “The worst they can do is say no.”
First came the campus selection process, with a lengthy written application and an interview with UA faculty.
The application included a public policy proposal, in which applicants had to write about an issue they felt needed to be addressed. Murugesan chose community paramedicine, a relatively new effort in health care that has paramedics serving bigger roles in delivering preventative care, primarily in underserved areas. The evolving system is attempting to address the problem of people calling 911 who don’t have emergencies, which can burden the 911 system.
“It’s pretty contentious,” Murugesan said. “Not everyone agrees it should exist. They think if you call 911, you should get a paramedic immediately, but that’s part of the reason I think it’s important to talk about these issues.”
Murugesan didn’t just talk about that issue — he’s experienced it. He has worked on community paramedicine at the Arizona Department of Health Services in the Bureau of EMS and Trauma System, which he was able to draw on for the next round of national interviews for the scholarship.
“I had that incredible experience at the state office and just tried to use that as a springboard to show where I think the field could be 20, 30, 40 years down the road and how I think I could be someone getting us to that point,” Murugesan said. “That was my vision, and I guess they agreed with that vision.”
Murugesan was competing against 840 candidates nominated from 346 colleges and universities, roughly 200 of which advanced to national interviews. But he said winning wasn’t about beating anyone else.
“All the other finalists were just incredibly inspiring. … It was cool just meeting them,” Murugesan said.
Busy campus life
Murugesan is also chief and executive director of the UA Emergency Medical Services, a position that sometimes requires him to balance 6 a.m. shifts with his schoolwork. However, Murugesan said his passion for the job makes the hard work worth it.
“No two days are the exact same, and that’s something I love about this field, the unpredictability of it is exciting, but also the privilege of being able to help people in some of their most vulnerable times,” Murugesan said. “It is a privilege, and at UA EMS, we really don’t take that lightly.”
With UA EMS, Murugesan responds to 911 calls on campus and works closely with the UA Police Department, the Tucson Fire Department and Campus Health Service.
Harry McDermott, a physician with Campus Health Service and an advisor to UA EMS, said he was not surprised Murugesan was selected for a Truman Scholarship.
“I’ve come to know him as a very conscientious, extremely bright, energetic and responsible young man, and personable, as well,” McDermott said. “It’s been a pleasure working with him, and I could see early on why he was selected for the leadership position.”
McDermott said Murugesan leads collaboratively, drawing on the strengths and abilities of his coworkers, but can also recognize when he needs to make the final decision as chief of UA EMS.
“I think the Truman Scholarship Foundation made an excellent decision,” McDermott said. “The award is around commitment to public service down the road, and so in my mind already Abhijay has shown, particularly through his work with University EMS, that he has a true interest in public service and the ability to make an impact through public service.”
After Murugesan graduates from the UA he plans to take a year off before going to medical school.
In that year, he will move to Bethesda, Maryland, to complete a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. Following that, he will work toward a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health, which is what the Truman Scholarship will help fund. Then comes a residency program in emergency medicine and a fellowship in emergency medical services.
“I still have 10-15 years of school left, but it’s fine — I like school,” Murugesan said.
Overall, Murugesan said he is enthusiastic about the future and thankful for the support he has received.
“I’m definitely excited for what this will bring and happy for the opportunity, but I want to stress that so much of what I’ve been able to do, this opportunity, is just purely because of the amazing team we have at UA EMS,” Murugesan said.