With Compassion for Immigrant and Refugee Populations, Sajila Kanwal ’22 Lays the Groundwork for a Career in Public Health

Sajila Kanwal '22

As a student at an all-girls’ high school in her home country of Pakistan, Sajila Kanwal ’22 thought her career path was set. She had aspirations of becoming a doctor, and was enrolled in her school’s pre-med program.

But during her first year at Hollins University, Kanwal soon discovered after taking a sociology class that she also found other fields of study equally as appealing. “It took me some time to kind of realize what I really wanted to do,” she recalled. Her educational exploration ultimately led her to classes taught by Visiting Assistant Professor in Global Politics and Societies Ashleigh Breske and Associate Professor in International Studies Jon Bohland.

With so many interests, Kanwal decided to major in international studies with a minor in social justice. Those passions coalesced last year when she took Breske’s Globalization and Local Responses course.

“I did research on women’s health in Pakistan and their access to sexual and reproductive healthcare,” she said. “I have first-hand experience of not being able to easily access those services back home because sexual and reproductive health is such a sensitive topic.” Kanwal said she hoped the subject would ultimately become her senior thesis, but a lack of available data presented obstacles. At the same time, she increasingly wanted to learn more about, and work with, refugees and immigrants in the United States. “So, I thought that focusing my thesis on undocumented immigrant and refugee women in this country, and their healthcare, would be a good idea. My research is about organizations that help women get access to sexual and reproductive services in Virginia, their policies, and what they are doing different compared to other organizations that cannot reach their goals.”

A class last spring on public health and social justice with Assistant Professor of Public Health Abubakarr Jalloh helped inform her thesis work and solidify her plans post-Hollins.

“I learned a lot about how there’s so much disparity in the healthcare system in the United States,” she explained. “Even during the pandemic, immigrants were completely ignored, even though they were bringing food to our tables. They were having to work even if they were sick. That really kind of drew me into public health, and I’m applying now to graduate school public health programs.”

In January, Kanwal will begin an internship with Ipas, a nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that promotes initiatives around the world to increase women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. She’ll work part-time and remotely in Ipas’ development department, where she will conduct individual and foundation donor research and study embassies located in countries where Ipas offices have programming. “Ipas has an office in my home country, which is amazing,” Kanwal said. “I’m going to be involved in a lot of fundraising. The contract is for one year, but I can end the internship in June if I find a full-time job after I graduate from Hollins. I definitely think it’s a great opportunity to start with in my public health career.”

“It has been such a gift to watch Sajila grow and mature during her time at Hollins,” said Ashley Browning, Hollins’ vice president for enrollment management. “She is a wonderful ambassador for our community. I am certain that her contributions at Ipas will make a meaningful impact on their work.”

Kanwal noted that she has enhanced her leadership skills through a number of extracurricular student activities. For the past three years she has served as a mentor in Hollins’ International Student Orientation Program (ISOP), and she works in the university’s Office of Admission, where her responsibilities include sharing on social media her everyday experiences with professors and her fellow students. She is a member of the Diversity Monologue Troupe, a team of student leaders that promotes understanding of the university’s rich diversity while helping to broaden perspectives on the various stereotypes common in society. She’s pursuing a Certificate in Leadership Studies from the university’s Batten Leadership Institute. And, she works as a community assistant, helping support the academic and personal development of each individual in the residence halls.

“I’ve learned a lot from my co-workers and supervisors,” she added. “Their empathy has really driven me to care for others and build my own character.”

The Hollins senior also praises her professors (“Their kindness is beyond limits. They understand you as a student, they give you honest feedback, and they want the best for you. I wouldn’t have had this at a bigger college.”) and her host parents, Marcella Griggs and Peter Trower of Blacksburg (“They have been of great support during my entire Hollins journey. They have really helped me a lot to get to where I am.”).

Kanwal is spending her Winter Break in New York City, where she will be volunteering for a refugee organization. Then, during January Short Term she’s heading to the Universidad de Alicante in Spain to immerse herself in study tours, activities, and courses in health sciences and social sciences.

“I’m proud of myself for choosing Hollins,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had this experience of self-development otherwise. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the future brings for me in terms of opportunities and options. I’m open to everything that interests me and see the best in each possibility.”