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The Pursuit of Friendship

Portrait of Jerome Chelliah

Credit: Chris Hartlove

Bloomberg School MPH class of ’15 grows closer with free-form storytelling.


“My relationship with America started under a mango tree in the middle of the Sri Lankan civil war,” Jerome Chelliah tells a circle of fellow Bloomberg School students who have gathered to share stories about their identities.

At the start of the 2014-2015 MPH program, Chelliah and Sunny Lai—both medical students from the UCSF School of Medicine—had looked around at their diverse and accomplished classmates and longed to know more about them than résumé headlines.

“We created Storytime because stories are the ultimate vessel for connecting with each other,” Chelliah had said.

Each month students offer their living room to 10-12 guests as a stage for storytelling around an open-ended theme—childhood memories, unsolved mysteries, love.

The pair of friends wanted to dismantle the impression that Johns Hopkins is an intense, icy place where people lose their sense of self to academia.

“Personal stories are just as important in this academic institution as the knowledge and experience that people bring,” Chelliah had said. “Networking will last if you have a personal connection.”

Tonight, in a row house filled with the aroma of baked chicken and sweet scent of horchata, the topic is identity. Lai sets the ground rules: Turn off your cell phones. Be present. Keep the stories confidential.

Tears fall early in the session as students reveal tender wounds of being bullied or stereotyped, of clinging to religion or letting it go. The voices of a Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist share equal measures of respect.

A young woman relates her beatings as a child to people whom she met only minutes before. Another student describes chronic pain that has haunted her body for years and stripped her of the joy of dancing.  

“Thanks for sharing,” is murmured softly around the room after each five-minute account of the struggle to know one’s self. Listeners are free to ask questions and the conversation flows into the next story. A few are silent the whole hour and a half.

Chelliah ends his own winding narrative as a Sri Lankan refugee, American immigrant, obese teenager and gay man with words that echo in everyone’s hearts.

“In hindsight, the moments that I felt most broken by life, I know now that I was being broken open.”

—Salma Warshanna-Sparklin

Learn More About the Bloomberg School MPH Program.