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Superhero qualities of a salutatorian

by Julie Riggott
Sonam Kapadia is one of this year's salutatorians
Salutatorian Sonam Kapadia started SC Homelessness Initiative, a student organization that develops and presents preventive health workshops for homeless women. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

Sonam Ghanshyam Kapadia, one of this year’s salutatorians, is not just the kind of student we all wish we could be but also the kind of person the world needs more of.

“I’m hoping to become a primary care physician and work with local underserved populations, like the Skid Row homeless population, and even globally through Doctors Without Borders,” said the poised 21-year-old senior.

In the summer after her freshman year, she took it upon herself to call the JWCH Center for Community Health, which provides free medical care to the homeless on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, and asked staffers if she could shadow a physician.

“I saw that the primary care physician was actually not just treating the homeless with medication but empowering them with knowledge about their illness or how to prevent future complications, and she even had classes with her patients. So she was not just a physician but also an educator,” Kapadia recalled.

That experience inspired her to start the SC Homelessness Initiative, a student organization that develops and presents preventive health workshops for homeless women.

“I thought, why wait until being a physician to make an impact when we can do something now as students?” she said.

Kapadia, who grew up in nearby Cerritos, decided she wanted to be a doctor in the second grade when she fell in love with science. Attracted to USC’s focus on interdisciplinary study and service learning, she matriculated as a Presidential Scholar with a major in health promotion disease prevention studies at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Kapadia then added a second major in biological sciences and a minor in sociology with a health and social welfare emphasis, both at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“I enjoyed being able to tie together all three disciplines and get a better understanding of medicine beyond just the science aspect of it,” said Kapadia, who was chosen as a Renaissance Scholar for “breadth with depth” in her studies.

With that kind of course load, how did she manage a 4.0 GPA?

“It was difficult, but if you take a genuine interest in the courses, it’s easier to do well in them,” she said. “I also have a few really inspiring professors – Panayiota Courelli [of the Keck School], Cheryl M. Craft of the Doheny Eye Institute and Veronica Terriquez [of USC Dornsife] – who were really supportive of me during my undergraduate experience.”

Kapadia’s academic excellence earned her membership in the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, as well as the Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award for the highest GPA among female graduates.

Her enviable list of accomplishments includes conducting research in all three disciplines through funding awards, such as the Rose Hills Foundation Scholarship and the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship; presenting posters at health conferences; and extensive work with the Joint Educational Project, where she combined coursework with experience in local schools.

Sometimes she truly seems like a superhero. Through GlobeMed at USC, she organized fundraisers to provide a fetal monitor for a prenatal clinic and donated computers for an educational computer lab in Ghana. She also volunteered as a patient care assistant at the Keck Medical Center of USC and read books to children in the local community as philanthropy chair of the USC Mortar Board, an honorary society that recognizes students who excel in leadership, service and scholarship.

When Kapadia finds free time, she balances her analytical side with art: oil painting, reading about art history and visiting art museums.

Not surprisingly, she takes advantage of these interests for the good of others: “I enjoy sharing my passion for art by volunteering through Free Arts for Abused Children, where I lead art workshops for at-risk families.”

Super, indeed.

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