Gabe Schwartz: Educated and agitated

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Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

I met Rathna a little over a year ago, four hours by car across the hot, bumpy Indian countryside from the nearest city. I was on study abroad. She was 21. Five years earlier, she had married a wealthy and “generous” man, willing to marry her for who she was, regardless of her impoverished background and inability to pay any dowry. For two years, she had a full life. She bore a child — he was perfect. She had never been so happy.

That was before they found out about her husband’s HIV. His slow descent into death. Her being cast out by her mother, and town after town, bent over in hard labor each day in transient work, racing home to feed her son after she was finished. That was before she came home and found him not breathing.

It wasn’t until after her suicide attempt, when she was found and brought to the hospital of the nonprofit where I was studying, that someone saw in her more than her diagnosis. The 80-year-old woman who would serve as my translator saw that Rathna received medical treatment from that nonprofit, arranged for her to work on their organic, experimental farm, and transformed that space into a refuge for other HIV-positive women. When I met her, Rathna had become the farm’s director. She wore gold jewelry she had saved up for and bought herself. She laughed often. I have never see anyone so radiant.

Rathna and I were born months apart but continents apart in distance, social and literal. Yet here she was, taking my hand, and here I was, finding myself proud not of my grades or my body but of the few things I had accomplished alongside people who had been through so much more than I had. I thought of the families I worked with at Rhode Island Hospital through Health Leads, and I thought of the many women I had met recently whose stories sounded much like Rathna’s. I pledged to myself that this was what I would devote my life to: helping other Rathnas find their own hope. Fighting to make sure that no one has to go through what she has gone through.

I’ve spent my final year at Brown taking the knowledge I’ve gained here and from Rathna, and gaining the hard tools — statistical programming, geospatial analysis, epidemiological modeling — to bring that advocacy to those making policy, to those who decide the shape and import of the lived realities of marginalized communities the world over. I have begun to play a bigger game. I will keep playing it. My radical politics will come with me.

What is striking now, looking back over my time at Brown, is how much any skills, perspective, or wherewithal I leave Brown with is the result of my coming here. My friends and classmates at Brown have rewritten my script of what is possible, late at night while arguing in dorm rooms. My professors and courses have revealed ways of seeing the world I had only the faintest idea of. I am no longer who I was. In my head and heart, at least, I am part of something larger.

Could I have learned these things elsewhere, ended up in the same place? Maybe. But coming to Brown remains the best decision I’ve ever made. It may always be. For all its faults — its wind tunnels, its prejudices, what it does to keep its place in the world — this is the place that made me. I will miss it.

Gabe Schwartz is off to do social and epidemiological research for public policy and social justice. After four years in New England, he is still confused about how there are places without mountains.