Country Coordinator Spotlight: Dr. Monika Sawhney, India

We are planning our first ever trips to India this June! So, of course, we wanted you to meet your lovely country coordinator. This week, we interviewed Dr. Monika Sawhney, our India CC! We are sure you will enjoy reading about her exciting life and traveling with her!

Dr. Monika Sawhney

Where is she from? Where has she lived?

Dr. Monika was born and raised in India. She came to the US to earn her PhD in Public Health, Social Work, and Human Resources Management. She has traveled to every continent besides Antarctica! Just a hand full of the places she has visited are Costa Rica, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, Switzerland, China as a teaching fellow, and Australia for a conference presentation in Sydney. She has visited much of Europe as a guest speaker as well.

What does she love most about India?

One of the things she loves about India is the solidarity in diversity. The country is very diverse; it has every religion and every nationality, and if you travel from one state of India to another, you will encounter a completely different language and culture. Even so, she says that people live well in harmony. The economy has been bringing attention to India as well; it is a unique country with amazing sightseeing, and they are one of the leaders in healthcare and technology improvements. In fact, those who leave India to study in the US often move back to work. She says that above all, what she loves most is the solidarity and harmony despite its being such a diverse country.

What is her family like?

Unfortunately, Dr. Monika lost her mother 10 years ago and her father this January. However, she was raised by these two amazing individuals who brought her up to respect and visit other villages, accepting people as they are. She says the biggest thing is that they let her achieve her dreams; instead of holding onto her, her parents believed in her and gave her the freedom to do everything she wanted to do in life. They taught her that sincerity, hard work, and knowledge can never be taken away from her; she says that if you are hardworking and sincere, everything will work out for you.

Where did she grow up? What was her childhood like?

She grew up in Baroda, Gujarat, where the Global Health program will be held in India. It is one of the most progressive and safe states with some of the best institutes in India. She grew up in a culture with diversity, and she says you could study anything you wanted. People there are very helpful as well. She is originally from Punjab near New Delhi and grew up with people from different parts of the country, celebrating different festivals and learning different languages. She hopes to go back to Punjab, especially since it is currently the best place in the country for healthcare and education.

What was the most impactful moment for her during her education?

Dr. Monika has her Bachelor’s in Biology and Chemistry, earned her first Master’s in Social Work and her second Master’s in Human Resources Management, then came to the US for her PhD in Public Health, Social Work, and Human Resources Management. With a population of 1 billion, education in India is very competitive. When she was studying, only the government universities were very highly ranked and prestigious, but she says that things have changed and there are more private universities that are ranked highly as well. Her college education was at one of the top universities in Punjab state, then she got her PhD in New Orleans and traveled to Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Austria, wanting to experience healthcare in other contexts. She says her favorite and most impactful place to visit was Ethiopia. She worked in challenging situations without running water, internet, or electricity. Even though she was alone, did not speak the language, and stayed in hotels where they had to use candles at night for light, it was completely worth it because, at the end of the day, she knew her work had saved a child’s life through vaccination or post-natal care. She has a passion to work with people and bring about change, and she says that even if she can only save one person or change one person’s life for the better, it is one of the most satisfying experiences for her.

What does she work in besides being a CC?

Dr. Monika is a professor and enjoys leading study abroad trips. She has led three study abroad trips to Tanzania, and she personally likes doing research programs and projects that will help people and bring about positive change. She works closely with her students, and it is important to her that they always have a job before graduation, get into top ranking programs, and are applauded for their performance in their field. She engages in different methods of teaching and collaborating outside of just one nation or state, and she is passionate about bringing like-minded people together from different parts of the world so they can work together and make opportunities for students.

At what point did she realize what her calling was?

She realized her calling when she did her Master’s in Social Work, and she saw that working with people gave her the most satisfaction. She believes in modern sustainability over charity, in the sense that teaching a person how to fish is more impactful than just giving them a fish. She has worked in different settings, such as with prisoners, rural people, and industrial organizations to name a few, and she says that if she can even help one person’s life positively, then she believes she has lived her life well.

What was her path to becoming an ISL CC?

While she was attending the American Public Health Association conference in Denver, CO, she met Jonathan Birnbaum. When she mentioned that she does study abroad programs mostly in India, one thing let to another, and here she is!

How long has she been working with ISL to develop the India program?

She started in fall of 2016.

A brief summary as what she does as a coordinator (both with ISL and as a professor):

First of all, she makes sure she has a strong hold on the ground. She makes connections with universities, private hospitals, NGOs, and other kinds of health systems to make opportunities for students to work with and shadow physicians, visit hospitals, and talk to people. She says it’s not good to just work, so she makes sure the students get to experience the culture and food, go sightseeing and shopping, and get the whole experience of India. Most of her students go back to India for internships, and one even worked in India for a year! Going for a short-term trip usually ignites the desire to learn more, and it feeds people’s interest to experience something outside of their comfort zone and see what other parts of the world have to offer in a way that helps them meet their goals at the same time. The most important thing for Dr. Monika is to keep volunteers safe, make sure they have clean water, safe food, and air conditioning, and provide them with what they need. While she says there is no need for them to feel physically uncomfortable in a foreign country, the trips are challenging so that they will learn from their experience abroad. What she wants most from a trip is for the students to say that they have grown after attending the program and that it would not have been possible for them to compare health systems without it. She is with them wherever they go, as a coach, mentor, friend, and professor. They do everything collectively.

What inspires her most about what she does?

What inspires Dr. Monika most about what she does is that she has had the opportunity to receive and give a good, applied education. She never thought she would become a professor when she was doing her PhD, but now she has the skills to train the next generation. She takes her job very seriously because it is a huge responsibility. Rather than class evaluation day being her favorite day, her best day is when her students tell her that they got the job because she was so strict with them. She has students who have gone on to the Gates Foundation, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and other prestigious institutions, and it inspires her to see the results of her work, watching her students progress and being able to create the next generation of a health workforce that has dedication, strong knowledge, and very good professional value.

Would YOU like to learn and serve in India? Check out our upcoming teams here!