Fifteen years ago, second-grader Megan Kassick threw on a long white lab coat, slung a stethoscope over her shoulder and proclaimed her goal of becoming a physician.
“I tormented my parents by playing doctor all the time,” says Kassick, now a 22-year-old senior biology major. “I still keep that lab coat in my closet.”
But Kassick no longer pretends to bring medical care to others. Now she’s living her dreams — transformed, she says, by a co-op in India that shaped her childhood calling into a crusade to improve public health in developing countries.
In June of 2010, Kassick went to India through the Presidential Global Scholarship Program, which offers competitively awarded grants to scores of students each year to support their international co-op experiences.
She volunteered at the Bal Basera Orphanage in Jodhpur, which takes care of children affected by HIV. According to India’s National AIDS Control Organisation, some 2.7 million Indians were living with the virus in 2008.
Kassick bonded with someone she now calls her “Indian sister,” a 24-year-old colleague named Bhawana, whose husband died of AIDS. Her story, Kassick says, was heartbreaking.
“If I was having a bad day, Bhawana would look at me and smile, and say, ‘Megan, don’t worry about anything. Life is good.’ ”
Kassick did her best to remember her friend’s words when she got a terrible phone call from her brother about a month into her co-op. Their father had died unexpectedly.
She quickly flew home to Bloomington, Minn. Although spending time with her family was a comfort, she didn’t want to forget about the children at the orphanage. Perhaps as a sign of what was in her heart, she had left most of her belongings behind at the home of her Jodhpur hosts, whom she calls her “second family.”
She went back to India three weeks after she’d left.
During the remainder of her co-op in Jodhpur, Kassick directed preparations for World AIDS Day, using it as a platform for HIV education and awareness. She organized rallies, conducted radio interviews and arranged forums featuring prominent government officials.
Kassick has two wishes for Jodhpur’s children. “I want them to receive a quality education, and I want them to be healthy.”
Kassick has already been accepted to Tufts University School of Medicine through its early-assurance partnership with Northeastern. When she enrolls in fall 2012, she plans to complete a joint degree program in medicine and public health.
After med school, Kassick would like to combat infectious diseases with Doctors Without Borders. She’s already mapped out a plan toward that goal.
In July, she returned to India to begin her third co-op, at the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research, and Education in Cancer at the Tata Memorial Hospital, in Mumbai, to work on a breast-cancer research project.
“My experiences have shown me what it’s like to work in this sort of field,” Kassick says. “I feel much more mature and aware of my place in the world.”