Zainab Poonawalla knows nobody else who has ever chosen her course of study – a double major of nursing and political science. But the combination makes perfect sense to her.
The third-year Rutgers student chose her current academic track after life-changing experiences in underdeveloped countries, where she observed poverty, sexual violence, and inadequate health care, because she believes it provides the best foundation for what she hopes to accomplish.
“I have some very big dreams,” says Poonawalla, 21. “My aspiration one day is to work for the World Health Organization at the United Nations and help establish global policies that will allow countries to improve their health care standards.”
Poonawalla already has participated in several international missions – in South Africa, Brazil, Thailand, and India – to promote health and education, as well as one to Bolivia counseling young women who have been raped, and worked on the United Nations Youth Assembly to empower youth. Though she was often startled and emotionally drained by the hardships she’s encountered, observing the monumental global challenges has energized her.
A Rutgers School of Nursing honors student, Poonawalla plans to launch her professional career – once she completes her two bachelor degrees and upon receiving an advanced practice degree in nurse anesthesia -- by joining Doctors Without Borders to work in Arab nations.
“Anesthetists and other primary care providers are in very high demand,” says Poonawalla. She’s confident the global health experience will provide insights into how she could help improve conditions for abused women and uneducated youth as a UN strategist.
“I want to continue to educate myself about the cruelties people are experiencing and raise awareness,” she says. “Many people don’t know. I was able to see it firsthand.”
Poonawalla recalls her most heart-wrenching experience working with victims of sexual abuse in Bolivia, a country where an estimated one in four girls has been sexually assaulted at some time in their lives. “Many are traumatized at a very young age,” says Poonawalla. “It’s so horrible to see. I would sometimes go to my room at night and cry from all the heartache.”
But it was her initial 2012 visit to India, where her parents were born, that more than any single experience, helped Poonawalla, raised in North Brunswick, shape her future ambitions.
“That’s where my passion for empowering women came from. I saw how badly women were treated and not permitted to speak or have opinions,” says Poonawalla, who departs on a Guatemalan mission later this month.
Sue Willard, associate dean of global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing, believes Poonawalla’s skills will be invaluable to the nursing profession and to policy-making agencies. “She is giving herself many career options beyond the bedside to affect quality patient care,” Willard says. “We need more nurses who will help set policy, whether for domestic or international venues.”
Though she has already formed an ambitious career agenda, Poonawalla is not eager to leave the School of Nursing or the Newark College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers, where her double major has led her to establish two groups of college friends and maximize her student experience. To accommodate her course requirements, she has taken classes at Rutgers’ three primary locations: Newark, which is her main campus, New Brunswick and Camden.
“I want to live in the moment,” she says. “I’m having a lovely time and don’t want to cut short the learning experience here.”
But what she has already learned has convinced her that she wants to be where she will make a difference fast.
“Giving back makes my heart happy,” she says. “I want people to live a life they can be proud of and live up to their potential, where they can set their own limits. I’ve realized there’s so much more to life than what I see in America. I want to make an impact everywhere, not just in my country. It’s the little changes that can make a world of a difference. ”
For media inquiries, contact Jeff Tolvin at Jeff.Tolvin@rutgers.edu