A Shared Journey

By Palak Shah, MPH graduate (Class of 2010)
July 29, 2011

I get asked more often than not why I’m choosing to attain a Masters of Public Health. I never really knew the perfect answer. I could talk about promoting health, prolonging life, and preventing disease, but this did not wholly encompass my particular attraction to the field. It was not until I dwelled upon an unfortunate situation that I was able to pinpoint the root of my fascination with public health. A couple of years ago, I befriended a girl, a junior in college, who identified as a rape victim. However when she talked about what had happened to her multiple times, it was with an air of detachment, as if she were recounting a scene in a movie she once saw rather than having actually experienced it. It turns out that her mind had repressed what ever emotions were attached with the incident and seemed to only extract the objective details.

One night however, some vault where she unconsciously unlocked her frustration, her hurt, and her fears became unfastened and she transformed into a completely different individual right before my eyes: meek, fragile, and vulnerable. She suffered from constant nightmares, formed an almost-adolescent-like dread of the dark, and starting growing a distrust of all male figures whom she did not know. Even beyond these other symptoms however was, for a period of time, her refusal to talk about or acknowledge her freshly uncovered aggravation and sorrow, feeling almost ashamed despite being the victim.

I believe that her psychological pain was immensely exacerbated only by her silence. During her traumatic episodes, a tempest of quiet vexation and mixed emotion brewed beneath her hollow eyes, and I can’t help but to think that if she did not feel shamed into silence, how many other survivors might find comfort within her story or learn from her experience? How many others might learn about the importance of being sexually tested or seeking consent in sexual relationships? However as she continued to ignore her will to talk about the traumatic experiences in her life, an action I fully understand and sympathize with, her story’s potential for positive impact also stood to vanish.

In all honesty, her story helped me uncover what it was about public health that I felt so impassioned about. Public health offers a special purpose in that it lends a voice to current issues and endemics that are not discussed freely. Seeing this particular victim drown in her own muteness caused me to realize how much open communication could not only help others cope with their own problems of a similar nature but, perhaps, prevent future victims. Communication and free discussion eases tension and reduces the shameful disposition stigmas can produce about consequential and often pressing issues such as victim advocacy, gender equality, protective sex, and social justice. This in turn allows those demographic groups that are most vulnerable to certain public health emergencies to become more confident and assertive in taking steps towards fending off harm and hazard.

I also believe that creating a dialogue about emerging prevalent health wellness issues can create open minds, eliminate backwards thinking, dispel myths, motivate people to seek resolutions, and provoke them to combat their own circumstances. Uninhibited discourse also empowers others to learn more about relevant issues plaguing the social and moral welfare of their own community. However, problems persist when silence persists. Well-trained public health professionals have the potential to initiate this conversation, one that is so necessary and pivotal towards creating a beneficial future. Thus, it is these reasons, some more personal than others, that fuel my passion to join the ranks of attaining a public health degree. I am ready and honored to be part of a field that entrusts a grave responsibility and trust to its workers to rid the world of such health disparities and dilemmas.

The very victim which I described earlier has since then taken multiple steps to empower herself including confronting her perpetrator, having enough courage to take legal action, helping other close friends in their own plight to recover, and pursuing a masters degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis on rape and sexual assault victims. Unbeknownst to her, she also serves as one of my most constant and plentiful source of inspiration.

As each day passes, it becomes more and more clear to me that because of this one woman’s journey, I would not have been able to make mine to reach the goals and destination that I have today at St. George’s. The journey that led me to this day to finally gain an opportunity to pursue my masters at St. George’s University is not an isolated trek , but enmeshed with the trials and tribulations of this victim. Her fears were my fears, her battle became my obsession, and her recovery became my only want. Through the ride, however, I was able to gain a clearer understanding of what I wanted to commit my life too: public health. In addition to garnering a fresh perspective on what public health means to me, the next biggest lesson I have learned is simply that our journey is rarely ever our own, but interwoven with shared experiences and continually shaped and affected by the impressions of others.

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