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Sharmila Jai Kumar
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Class of 2013

Sharmila Jai Kumar ’13 has worn many hats on her journey to graduation—one of student, leader, volunteer, colleague, and friend. For Jai Kumar, receiving a Cornell degree—a BS in biological sciences with a concentration in nutritional sciences, and a minor in applied economics and management for the life sciences—is one of her greatest accomplishments. It was made possible through the combination of her own determination and the support she received from her family and mentors.

Jai Kumar transferred to Cornell from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the start of her sophomore year. She admits that the adjustment was difficult.

She recalls her lowest point: the third, and notoriously difficult, organic chemistry exam.

“I didn’t even know what I got on the exam, but I just felt like I had done so poorly,” she says. “It threatened to be the thing that showed me I didn’t belong at Cornell.”

Jai Kumar went to talk with her faculty advisor, who shared a poem with her. It’s a poem that has stayed in her heart for the last three years (an excerpt from “Ithaca” by Constantine P. Cavafy):

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
Pray that the road is long,
Full of adventure, full of knowledge . . .

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.

At that moment when her advisor shared the poem, Jai Kumar realized that her Cornell experience would be more than just one exam. She learned that her journey wouldn’t always be easy, but that’s what would make her stronger.

Paying it forward

A compassionate, strong young woman, Jai Kumar decided to help others as much as she could during her remaining time at Cornell.

“I’ve been helped a lot, not only at Cornell, but throughout my life,” she explains. “I feel like the best way of saying thank you to all the people who helped me is to pay it forward.”

For the last year, Jai Kumar has been a resident assistant at the Hans Bethe House on West Campus. Among other things, she organized social events for the residents and encouraged them to talk to one another. The social events gave her a chance to check in and see how everyone was doing, academically and otherwise.

“If you’re having a stressful week . . . or if you’re having friend troubles or roommate conflicts, it tends to come out at that time because you aren’t really focused on school,” she says.

Jai Kumar felt a special connection with her house’s international students. Her family is from India, so she had experienced many of the same things these students were going through. She remembers having a conversation with a resident who was an international student from Pakistan. The student was looking for some more information about leadership opportunities, but ended up sharing a lot about herself.

“She was so appreciative,” Jai Kumar says. “I like just being there for people; letting them talk; and figuring out how I can help them.”

A special kind of doctor

When Jai Kumar is a doctor, she sees herself going above and beyond the call of duty by getting to know her patients—mind, body, and soul. While she believes allopathic medicine is important, Jai Kumar plans to take an integrative approach, too. For her, complete healthcare involves counseling, education, discussion, and changes in lifestyle.

“I really think doctors can work to improve on hearing out what their patients are passionate about, what they want to do in life, what their goals are,” she says. “Then you really understand the mental factors that are affecting their health.”

Jai Kumar spent time in rural India, studying diet and nutrition strategies for low-income patients suffering from diabetes. She assessed patients’ glucose levels and talked to them about what that number meant and what their disease might be like in two months or a year. The typical Indian diet explains why diabetes is so prevalent there.

“We would say ‘drink less tea’ and ‘watch out for the oily food’ and counsel people,” she says. “Counseling and education is part of a medical career. It’s more than just the science of knowing how to fix someone. It’s how to help them on a long-term scale.”

Jai Kumar also worked as a curriculum intern for Weill Cornell Medical College, where she helped develop course material for its global health program. She drew on her previous international experiences and courses to put together public health case studies for first-year medical students.

“I came up with different scenarios with actual people and actual things that I had seen, in order for students to think about the situations and say ‘well, how would I approach this when I’m a doctor, or when I go abroad?’” Jai Kumar says.

She explains that students learn more by putting these unfamiliar health issues in context. For example, it’s more effective to tell the story of a young Indian woman named Lakshmi who is HIV-positive and pregnant, rather than simply stating India’s maternal mortality rate.

The past and the future

Jai Kumar feels grateful as she looks back on her time at Cornell.

“Cornell’s a place where I could embrace who I am and what I have to offer . . . a mix of American and Indian cultures. I was able to express that here,” she says.

Her experiences have led her to decide that she wants to practice medicine on a public health level in diverse, international communities. She’s interested in how culture affects medical views. In the far-off future, she sees herself in a position that allows her to lead public health standards, like the surgeon general.

“It sets the bar high,” she says. “It gives me something to work toward.”

Jai Kumar plans to attend the Frank H. Netter School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University, and hopes to specialize in infectious diseases or emergency medicine.

“My whole Cornell experience was like climbing up Libe Slope. You start out at the bottom and you don’t think you can do it—it’s so steep and so high—but when you finally get to the top, the view is breathtaking. I’m at the top now,” she reflects. “I know it’s been worthwhile.”

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