ALBERTA

Billy-Ray Belcourt, First Nations Student, Receives Rhodes Scholarship

11/28/2015 03:06 EST | Updated 12/01/2015 10:59 EST

He has a perfect 4.0 GPA. He's the president of the aboriginal students association at the University of Alberta. He sits on committees and somehow finds time to write poetry.

And now Billy-Ray Belcourt is one of 11 Canadians this year to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship, widely regarded to be the world's most academically prestigious.

Belcourt, a 21-year-old member of the Driftpile Cree Nation, told CTV's Canada AM show that he was "overcome with emotion" upon hearing he had been chosen as one of 89 international Rhodes scholars at Oxford University. The comparative literature student said he intends to pursue a master's degree in medical anthropology and women's studies.

The post-graduate awards, which began in 1903, are given to "young women and men of outstanding intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service," according to its website. It covers all tuition fees and includes a personal stipend, as well as an economy-class ticket to Oxford and a flight back to the scholar's home country.

The first person Belcourt called was his grandmother, who he says assumed something was wrong due to his tears-of-happiness tone on the phone.

Belcourt was raised by his grandparents, according to the CBC. He told the broadcaster his family "instilled in me the drive to succeed as an indigenous person."

At Oxford, Belcourt plans to focus on the effects of colonialism on indigenous people's health. He told the University of Alberta his work with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network helped influence his plan to study medical anthropology.

"I’ve been able to witness first-hand the health disparities that are troubling First Nations reserves, such as the lack of information around culturally safe sexual health, education and practices for Indigenous peoples,” he said.

Aboriginals in Canada "continue to be over-represented in the HIV epidemic," according to Health Canada. The department says that although infections among the total population have gone down, "it appears that HIV rates have been steadily increasing in First Nations and Inuit populations."

A variety of factors have led to increased vulnerability for aboriginal people, such as poverty, substance use and limited access to health services.

Upon returning to Canada, Belcourt said he wants to help work on culturally specific HIV prevention models and improve the health of indigenous people.

In his application for the scholarship, Belcourt said he argued "that this wasn't just about me — it was for my community and for all Indigenous people in Canada to be able to see someone like them winning something like this."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Belcourt was the first-ever First Nations student to receive a Rhodes scholarship. Kathy-Anne Gabrielle Hughes, a Newfoundland and Labrador student and a member of the Mi’kmaq community, received the scholarship in 2011.

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