Senior Sarah Schulman, a youth-health advocate, wins Rhodes Scholarship

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman began her campaign against youth smoking at the precocious age of 7.

“I saw a television commercial that showed a black, cancerous lung, and I was so disgusted with the picture that I wrote the school nurse to ask how I could help,” Schulman recalled.

The nurse forwarded her letter to the Texas Department of Health, which later enlisted her, at age 10, to work undercover. The four-foot-tall sting operative would walk into convenience stores in her hometown of Austin, Texas, and ask to buy tobacco products, which would have been illegal to sell to her because of her age. But she met with an alarming rate of success: Never once, she said, was her request declined.

Since then, her anti-smoking advocacy has blossomed into a broader passion for adolescent health policy, particularly where it intersects with education. The 20-year-old human-biology major, who is concurrently earning a master’s degree in education, said she will continue to pursue her vocation next autumn when she heads to Oxford University as one of 32 Rhodes Scholars from the United States.

She was notified of her selection for the prestigious scholarship Saturday, in Texas, where she had returned to complete her final interviews.

“I’m still in shock,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve processed it yet.”

Schulman was among 14 finalists from District VII, which in addition to Texas comprises Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The 32 American scholars were chosen from a pool of 904 applicants nationwide.

“My real feeling about Sarah is that she has had a long-standing commitment to the issues that were expressed in her applications,” said John Pearson, director of the Bechtel International Center, who oversees student applications for several national scholarships. “She also brought to her application remarkably supportive and detailed references, which really do count when you’re trying to decide between extremely good candidates.”

Schulman, who plans to study for a doctor of philosophy in comparative social policy at Oxford, said she came to Stanford “to understand how health policymaking really works.”

After her early participation in law enforcement, she said she arrived at the conclusion that prevention was a key element missing from her efforts. “Rather than figure out how to stop teenage tobacco use, I had to determine how to prevent my peers from ever lighting up,” she said. “I became fascinated by reasons for behavioral health problems—peer pressure, stress, family influence, lack of awareness of health consequences.”

She met and lobbied members of the Austin City Council and the Texas legislature. She established an anti-tobacco initiative for youth called Game Over and, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, brought together more than 100 police officers, physicians, health educators, teachers, students, policy-makers and Austin community members to set out a common vision for adolescent health in the city.

A short time later she broadened the mission of Game Over to encourage young people to be heard on a wider array of health issues. The nonprofit organization, which she renamed Youth Infusion (, has served as a consulting firm on youth-related health matters for government agencies, schools, businesses and other nonprofits.

Since coming to Stanford, Schulman has taken an intense interest in clinical and social-science research. She joined the Medical School’s Division of Adolescent Medicine to work as a research assistant and study coordinator. She spent the Autumn Quarter of 2003 working in a Russian state hospital. “I did not have to speak the language to see that a patient’s health could only be understood by grappling with the social context in which the patient lived,” she said.

And she spent last summer as a research assistant in the Office of the Assistant Surgeon General in Washington, D.C. It’s a smart place to be, especially if, as Schulman admits, you’ve got your career sights set on the post of U.S. Surgeon General.