Students discussed how they incorporated social justice into their Brandeis careers
For many students, college is a time to explore new subjects while rediscovering old passions. It’s a time to find yourself. The panel “Exploring social justice in the Brandeis classroom and beyond: courses, internships and careers” met on Monday at noon in the Hassenfeld Conference Center and featured 5 student speakers who each detailed their own Brandeis journey. The presentation itself was co-sponsored by the Health: Science, Society and Policy Program and the Social Justice and Social Policy Program and was part of ’DEIS Impact.
The presentation began with co-moderator Prof. Sarah Curi (LGLS) asking the students to describe what social justice meant to them. While most of the answers loosely defined the term similarly — an ever- changing means for the promotion of human equality and dignity — each student clarified their own focus. Shikha Chandarana ‘17 is interested in providing healthcare access, and Idelle Vaynberg ’17, similarly, wants to look at healthcare equality. Tannya Jajal ’17 wants to focus on women of color in the law, Matt Smetana ’17 wants to advocate for the environment and Khadijah Sawyer ’18 strives to empower women of color.
Despite these different career aspirations, each student utilized the diversity of resources at Brandeis to help them achieve their social justice mission. They also all engaged in a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating classes outside their field and internships into their studies.
Sawyer began by discussing her desire to create a contemporary practice to undo neocolonialism. As a woman of color, she spoke of her personal experience at the intersection of oppression. At Brandeis, Sawyer studies both African and Afro-American Studies and Computer Science. “I’m thinking about all of these things and leveraging them as I’m moving through my field and thinking about ‘How can I address these issues that impact my daily life, my friends, my family, folks that I care about and using all of the tools and materials that I do have access to because I do exist in an academic space? ... ’ So that’s one of the major things that I’m thinking about as I continue to think about intersections in computer science and Blackness,” she said.
Chandarana began her academic journey at medical school in India. However, she quickly realized that it wasn’t for her. She spent her gap year working at a non-profit that helped sex workers with children diagnosed with HIV. It was during this experience that she realized there was a gap in doctor-patient communication.
At Brandeis, Chandarana majors in HSSP. She was able to study abroad in Australia and the Netherlands. She also spent her summer working in the slums of Mumbai. All experiences focused on public health, and Chandarana began to notice an upsetting trend. What she calls “cultural health care,” — the health practices and traditions of communities — were being completely ignored in favor of a more Westernized health care approach. Yet historical violence toward communities and centuries of tradition made many people Chandarana worked with unwilling to adopt these new practices. “It left a very bitter taste in my mouth. It almost seemed as if we were silencing those who wanted to speak,” she explained. Chandarana tackles this issue in her thesis.
Jajal is currently studying Economics and Politics and plans on going to law school after graduation. She worked for 6 months in the United Arab Emirates with domestic abuse victims. She plans on using her economics degree as a lens for viewing poverty. Jajal also discussed the double-edged sword that can come with parental support. While she was thankful that her parents let her pursue her passions, they don’t entirely understand her chosen career path. Jajal explained that this greatly forced her to guide her own path. Jajal also advocated for pursuing topics outside of your intended field of study. “Even if you’re not personally going into that field, it doesn’t mean that you can’t dabble in it or it doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually get into the field,” she said. For example, Jajal is passionate about artificial intelligence. She works with the organization Intelligent Optimism which uses data to encourage optimism about the future of technology.
Smetana explained that his passions lie in advocating on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, and that includes the environment. He spoke about the social pressures that come with choosing a career path that will pay off financially. However, Smetana summarized that his parents are happy because he is happy. Smetana interned at the Walden Woods as a conservation assistant. He was tasked with creating a path in the woods and in approaching this job, Smetana utilized his access to Thoreau’s documents. He would research passages and quotes from Thoreau and try to incorporate them into his creation of the path. “It’s nice to have these different experiences within a job that teach you what you like to do. … I love creating something from other parts and bringing together this very central thing that feels personal,” he explained. Though Smetana initially started as a Biology major, he found that the more human aspect of environmental policy was a source of passion for him.
In her studies, Vaynberg has combined Health: Science, Society and Policy and Psychology and is on the pre-med track. While she initially entered Brandeis to study medicine, her Health Psychology course marked a turning point in her education. She loved the context provided by the course. Rather than just studying the biology of infant mortality, for example, Vaynberg stressed the importance of looking at cultural and sociological factors as well. She knew taking HSSP classes and Psychology classes was the correct choice, because she felt excitement adding the courses to her schedule each semester. Vaynberg also stressed the importance of internship experience and pushing past your assigned tasks to find your passions. While interning in New York City at a program meant for students interested in pursuing a PhD in environmental sciences, Vaynberg was struck by the difference in qualities of the different medical centers near her program. “I was interested in pushing beyond just what I was doing in my lab in the medical center to find out more about these differences. … Even if you sign up for an internship that you think might be for one thing only, there are still ways to push beyond that.”
Here, Curi chimed in. She discussed the importance of trying new things and stressed the youth of college students. In as few as 10 years, the obligations and priorities a student has now will most likely have changed. Though there will be massive successes, “there are going to be rainy days,” she said. But with resilience, grit and flexibility, everyone can find their true path.