One of the very best: Kunal Sharma Photo: Ben Rushton
For Kunal Sharma, being named as the new Rhodes Scholar for NSW was something akin to going to the Oscars.
"It's a little bit like the Academy Awards," he said. "If you've just gone there for the party and not been expecting to actually get this, you don't really know how to react. I was very surprised."
The announcement would hardly have come as a shock to the academics who taught Mr Sharma law at the University of NSW, where he graduated this year with first class honours.
"His teachers said to me he was the best legal mind they'd come across for years," the Dean of Law, Professor David Dixon, said.
"He's one of the very best students we've ever had at the university . . . an extraordinarily impressive young man."
Mr Sharma was 12 when he immigrated from India with his family, living above a pizzeria in Croydon. The following year he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a malignant bone tumour. "I was very fortunate," he said. "I spent a lot of time in treatment but came out the other end and was able to continue doing what I wanted to do."
He was dux of the selective Girraween High School in 2006, completing his HSC with a UAI of 99.95, and began an arts/law degree at the university. When he was 20 the cancer reappeared, forcing the amputation of his right leg. He gave up karate but is still a keen swimmer.
Next year Mr Sharma, 25, will head to Oxford University to undertake a Bachelor of Civil Law and a Master of Public Policy. He has a particular interest in the structures of private property, taxation and social welfare – something that has come under renewed focus with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, he said.
Mr Sharma's teachers at UNSW encouraged him to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, one of nine awarded annually in Australia to outstanding students.
"A lot of people seem to think these elite programs are designed around a particular mould of person," he said. "Although my experiences were different, it didn't mean I shouldn't give it a shot."