Nithum Thain's father fled Burma when Nithum was a year and a half old. The country was in chaos. Thousands died in a military coup. Today Burma, now known as Myanmar, is among the most repressive and isolationist countries in the world.
Nithum's father, a physician, landed in England, where he started out all over again, putting himself through medical school by working construction jobs. He brought over his wife and two sons as soon as he could. When Nithum was 8, the family emigrated to Canada and settled in doctor-hungry St. John's. For a time, they were the only Burmese family in Newfoundland.
"I really consider myself a Newfoundlander," says Nithum, now 23. "Those were the formative years of my life." His father hoped he'd specialize in medicine, but he turned out to have a gift for mathematics. He's already doing his PhD. Next fall, he'll be heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar - one of 11 Rhodes Scholars chosen every year from Canada.
I met Nithum because I helped do the choosing. Sitting on the Rhodes committee for Ontario (where his family lives now) would leave anybody humbled and inspired. These young people are among the very best Canada has to offer - and they are terrific.
One thing the Rhodes has taught me is that Canada is indeed a meritocracy, in the very best sense. The best kids rise to the top, regardless of background. Some applicants are privileged, but most are not. Many are from immigrant families, and some of the families arrived here with nothing. Most went to public school. The one common denominator is strong family support.
No other place (except, perhaps, for the United States) is as open to young people with energy and talent as we are. The class barriers that still shape life in France and Britain don't exist here. Your connections, your grandparents, your hue and your school ties do not matter. We tend to focus on the struggles of first-generation newcomers. But their children have the same shot at the Rhodes as any 10th-generation Canadian. Canada, by luck and conviction, has become an egalitarian meritocracy.
The Rhodes Scholarship isn't only about intellectual excellence. It's about leadership and public service. And what strikes you most about this generation of gifted twentysomethings is their desire to make the world a better place. Nithum is no exception. Math is easy for him - perhaps too easy to engage his heart and soul. He realized (after spending some time with poor kids in Nepal) that he wanted to use his mathematical gifts to make a difference in the world. So he's going to study international development at Oxford. The military regime in Myanmar won't last forever. One day it may rejoin the world, and perhaps he could help.
The other Rhodes Scholar from Ontario this year is an equally extraordinary young woman, Erin Fitzgerald. Her parents came here from Ireland, and she grew up in Scarborough. "I've had a lovely childhood," she says. Her mother is an ER nurse, and her father drives a truck for Coca-Cola. What strikes you about both Erin and Nithum is not only their matchless record of achievement, but the fact they're so unaffected, natural and (that most Canadian of virtues) nice. "My parents were incredibly supportive, but they also emphasized balance," says Erin. Her idea of balance was to graduate with the highest secondary-school marks in Toronto, win a gold medal at the world karate championships, excel at the University of Toronto and do an internship with one of Washington's most prestigious think tanks. She is specializing in security studies and wants to learn about the locus between security and development, and what it takes to fix failed states. "Canada can bring a lot to the table," she says.
Yes, we can. And most of all, we can bring our kids. They are our greatest gift to the world. They are the biggest reason why I'm so proud to be a Canadian.