When you think about the “average” college student you might imagine someone in their late teens or early twenties trying to figure out what impact they want to make on the world and how they are going to do it. What you probably don’t see is the student who’s already made up their mind.
Jigna Rao, Sociology major, is exactly that exception. Having experienced and triumphed over Pelvic Tuberculosis, she decisively transformed herself into an advocate for those going through the same social and cultural anxieties that she had.
“I had gathered my own education around the social implications of an infectious disease,” Rao said, though she lamented that she still missed the formal education she desired. “I knew that that education would give me the skills to fight the good fight.”
Yet Rao’s journey to TCNJ, her eventual institution of choice, played out in the most unconventional of ways. After departing with her home and family in South India 13 years ago, she arrived in the U.S. to live with her husband and shortly thereafter found work in Drumthwacket, the NJ Governor’s official residence in Princeton, NJ, when Governor Corzine was in office. But that soon ended after a few months of working under Governor Christie’s administration.
It was then in 2006 that Rao was first diagnosed with Pelvic TB. In the year that ensued, she incurred treatments and medications beyond that which most people obtain in their lives. It caused complications in her attempts to get pregnant, and ultimately resulted in her infertility.
Yet with the unconditional support of her family in India, she took the first steps toward becoming a TB advocate: obtaining a college degree.
“I always wanted to go to college, I just couldn’t find an opportunity until then to be able to do that,” Rao said.
One major in specific piqued her interest most.
“Sociology was the one that really stood out,” Rao said. “I felt that sociology would give me that clear understanding of how societies work. Diseases like TB, while they infect individuals, they also infect entire societies.”
It seemed natural to Rao then that she would complete her education and become the well-informed advocate for TB patients that she envisioned.
“Coming to a college where most students are traditional, and I was one of the very small minority of nontraditional students, I was worried as to how I would go about making friends and how I would fit in,” Rao said. And, as a testament to her time here, she quickly explained this assumption away.
Once she arrived here, however, she learned quickly that she had stumbled upon an amicable learning environment.
“I always knew that if I needed something I could always ask anybody in class or even on the campus,” Rao said. For example, in Spring 2013, during her Keynote Speech at the NYC World TB Day, she became so overwhelmed by the crowd’s standing ovation that she stumbled and sprained both of her ankles. Ordered to bed rest for weeks, she became distraught with the fear that she had lost her chance at completing her degree.
“I was just so terrified of losing so many class days,” Rao said, but it occurred quickly to her that professors were willing to meet her more than half way. “This would not be a set-back to my academic timeline,” Rao said, citing her instructors’ flexibility.
The professors in HSS not only guided her in the classroom, but outside of it in office hours as well.
“Everyone wants to see you succeed,” Rao said. “I always knew that if I needed something I could always ask anybody in class or even on the campus.”
Now nearing the end of her time as a TCNJ student, Rao attested to “how confident I am starting to feel because of the education I am receiving at TCNJ.”
“I feel much more confident of how I’m presenting my point of view and also how I’m able to keep an open mind to opposing viewpoints, and learn from them,” Rao elaborated. “We are all… very fortunate that we can be in an institution like TCNJ and get an education. I know that’s not true for so many other, millions around the world.”
Rao’s success story clearly speaks for itself. Yet, she refuses to stop there and to this day continues to speak up for the countless victims of TB and its stigma around the world. In fact, she was recently asked to speak at a conference on TB in Paris hosted by Treatment Action Group, Partners In Health, Médecins Sans Frontières, the Stop TB Partnership and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
She also spoke on Sept. 27 of this year at the New Jersey Medical School Global Tuberculosis Institute with two world-renowned TB experts.
“You’re never too powerless to make a difference,” Rao said, attesting to her own struggles. “You just have to be willing to go for it.”