She Persisted: Sashrika
by Madison Palmer
It’s a conversation I’ll never forget: Sashrika Saini, a pre-med student from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, addressed the secret behind her relentless grit and resolution: “It’s a feeling…I don’t even know how to explain it. It is something that just happens–and when [it does] you never forget it.”
Life is never simple or perfect, but sometimes things come together at just the right time: her brows furrowed as she attempted to put the inexplicable into words. “The time I felt it the most, I was working in the pediatric ward [in India]. There was this dad that came in with his son [with] a really bad fever. [His family] told me about all the stress they’ve been under and their guilt. And I just sat there and I listened. Three days later, the father hugged me and his son…” Sashrika broke into a broad smile, her head shaking in wonder. For a moment we sat there, her head upturned as if she was in disbelief of what she was about to say next. “…His son touched my feet. And that in [Indian] culture is the utmost sign of respect. I can’t even explain what I was feeling at that moment. I had done nothing but listen. But there was clearly something that sparked so much gratitude in their hearts…I would do anything to feel that again.”
The student, whose name means “possessed with grace” in Hindi, is the daughter of Lokesh and Jasbeer Saini, two computer scientists from Jaipur and Srinagar, India respectively. In 2003, Lokesh hugged his wife and 4-year-old daughter as he boarded a plane on a one way trip from Mumbai to Massachusetts. Until she joined her father two years later in the United States, Sashrika would hold only faint memories of him. Since her move to the United States, Sashrika traveled to India several times to visit her family. But it was not until 2018 that Sashrika worked in a local hospital in Jaipur that she discovered the mysterious feeling of euphoria for which she is now constantly searching.
Sashrika often says that it does not take an accomplished doctor to make a change. As a student, Sashrika fills her everyday routine with academics and extracurriculars which demand constant vigilance and determination. Her day often begins with an 8:45 am alarm, a rushed 10-minute shower, and last minute research lab calculations. Despite her busy and unpredictable schedule, Sashrika tries to always dress well, accented with a bold lip color. It is only on rare occasions that she will tie up her hair. Having always worn her hair in a tight braid in childhood, letting down her hair symbolizes change and autonomy.
Determined to finish her lab experiment before her afternoon class, Sashrika rushes to write down measurements and calculations on a small, bright sticky note as time wears thin. The room quiet and morning light signals the beginning of a long day. For a moment, Sashrika gazes beyond her computer in contemplation–a moment of stillness which periodically presents itself throughout her hectic day.
Around her neck, she wears the same heart-shaped necklace that her mother wears–a reminder of their constant connection.
The two years alone with her mother (depicted on the left), although brief, have solidified the permanent bond between the two. “She is someone you could tell anything,” Sashrika says as she describes her mother. A sense of joy always fills the room the moment her mother comes into the discussion. The two bear a striking resemblance: an angled point of the nose and gently rounded jaw. “There’s so much that life has thrown at my mom, but she still bounces back.”
Sashrika waits for her lab co-worker, Rachel, outside her dorm. As the two begin their ten-minute walk across campus, her partner teases Sashrika for insisting that they both wake up early to get to the lab. “We didn’t need to go in this early, but Sashrika wanted to,” she laughs. On their way, they hastily grab their breakfast from the student center cafe. “We often don’t have time for breakfast, but sometimes we’ll eat while we prepare for lab” Sashrika says while placing an egg in a to-go container. With breakfast in hand, the two girls rush up to the Life Science Laboratories where they place down their things, eat, and discuss the preparations for a direct binding assay. Their two hour goal quickly fades as the girls meet some unplanned complications. “Nothing is perfect or ever turns out the way I want it to. This unpredictable nature of life is the only constant” Sashrika explains. After solving the problem at hand, Sashrika and Rachel laugh off their mistakes and embrace the wonderful ambiguity of research.
Due to her dependence on her husband’s visa, Jasbeer (depicted on the left) had to place her computer science career on hold for 15 years. “We don’t have a green card…We’ve been in the process for so long…and every time we renew our visa, there’s always this chance that we might move back to India.” Sashrika explains. Sashrika’s conversational tone is gentle and matter of fact– “until we’re permanent residents, it all depends on whether my dad is working here.” Sashrika’s student life reflects the busy nature of her father’s obligations: he travels an hour and fifteen minutes each day to his job in New Hampshire. For Lokesh, a stable job means security and an ensured life with his family.
At 9 pm Sashrika lies across the dorm lobby couch, her work sprawled on the table. “I was feeling fine this morning…” Sashrika laughs swaying side to side. With a high fever and no access to DayQuil, Sashrika finds herself struggling to finish her Biochemistry homework. When a friend recommends she get some rest, Sashrika sleepily shakes her head explaining she promised to cover a Residential Assistant shift for a friend until 11 pm.
The wish to help those in need is a commonality amongst Sashrika’s family, but only she and her grandfather share the same passion for medicine. “I knew some part of me wanted to go into healthcare because of my Grandpa, a doctor in the army. When I was in India, I remember [Grandpa] used to take me to his clinic and it was my job to give each kid a lollipop. Even though I was super small, I will never forget the memory of handing out these little red lollipops to kids and the smiles on their faces. I felt like I’d done something extraordinary. And the fact that what I was doing was so minuscule in the grand scheme of things. made me realize that it really doesn’t take a lot to impact change.”
Sashrika is in constant motion: hastily walking across campus, writing reports, and at times dancing in front of her dorm room mirror and remembering the many tireless nights spent at ballet practice.
If required to sit for an extended amount of time, Sashrika bites her lower lip. In conversation, Sashrika conveys her sentiments through facial expressions. Much like the constant flow of her day, her expressions continually vary. “I’m always laughing.” Sashrika says apologetically, “It’s a habit I’ve picked up.” Moments of laughter break long periods of silence and times of reflection tame the chaos of the day.
Sashrika’s life is wonderful in its imperfections, peaks, and falls. Beneath the academics and extracurriculars lie aspirations and dilemmas which confront all pre-med students. How much of her time must she sacrifice for success? What is the best way she can help others in her everyday life? Sashrika has no ready answer, but as she studies and tackles daily challenges, she affects the lives of those around her one day at a time.