International Alumni to Reunite at Johns Hopkins
By Brian Hiro
Six years ago, two students from faraway nations met as part of the orientation day of the Office of Global Education at Cal State San Marcos.
Khyati Kansagra hailed from Gujarat, a state on the western coast of India. Bayan Sairafi was from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Placed in the same icebreaker activity, they immediately hit it off, and their bond only grew through subsequent international coffee hours and cultural fests.
This fall, more than two years after they graduated from CSUSM, Kansagra and Sairafi will be reunited at one of the premier academic institutions in the United States. Kansagra actually has already enrolled at Johns Hopkins University and is living in Maryland, having started in January a two-year master’s program in biotechnology with a specialization in regulatory affairs.
She will be joined in a few months by Sairafi, who plans to return from her home country to begin pursuing a Master of Public Health degree with a concentration in health communication and health education.
“For us, it was definitely a coincidence,” Kansagra said. “But it feels really good to see that someone who I know from undergrad is also coming to Johns Hopkins. And Bayan clearly deserves it. It’s a great university, so I’m so glad we’ll be there together.”
Sairafi was in the process of applying to Johns Hopkins last winter when she noticed that Kansagra had been one of the subjects of the international alumni spotlight on CSUSM’s Global Programs and Services webpage and that the feature mentioned her impending studies at the Baltimore school famous for being America’s first research university. Sairafi decided to reach out to Kansagra to seek advice on the statement of purpose for her application.
“It was like a motivation for me,” Sairafi said. “When I saw that Khyati got accepted, my desire to get accepted went up because we come from the same school with the same kind of experience. And I am so proud of her because I know how hard she has worked.”
The news that two international alumna of CSUSM will soon be brought together again at Johns Hopkins was greeted enthusiastically by Danielle McMartin, director of the Office of Global Education, who became close with both of the women during their time on campus.
“They were both fiercely focused on their education and long-term goals,” McMartin said. “However, they both also realized the value of getting everything they possibly could out of their time here at CSUSM and in the U.S. They were both engaged with their faculty, with student organizations, with volunteering when opportunities were presented.
“Lucky for CSUSM, Bayan and Khyati graciously also shared their culture with our community. Neither student wanted to ‘set their culture aside’ to participate in ours. They both seemed to understand the balance maintaining their cultural norms while learning and interacting with ours.”
Kansagra moved to the United States on a student visa in 2014, the year before she started at CSUSM. She chose the university because of the opportunities for growth as a person and student and because of the proximity to Orange County, where relatives of her family lived. She was only 18, and it was her first time traveling to another county and leaving her parents, who still live in India.
“It had been a dream since I was a kid,” Kansagra said. “I always wanted to be independent and on my own, just able to support myself and grow up. The culture I come from isn’t like that; Indians are really sheltered and pampered. The other driving factor is that I was really interested in biotech, and India doesn’t have many options to pursue that.”
At CSUSM, Kansagra majored in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry. Besides her involvement with the Office of Global Education, she worked as a biology research assistant and as a tutor for the STEM Center. After graduating in December 2018 (she participated in commencement the following spring), she found a job as a lab technician for Kyowa Kirin, a pharmaceutical research company in La Jolla.
Upon completing her master’s program at Johns Hopkins, Kansagra plans to return to working in the pharmaceutical industry, where she’d like to help shepherd to market a treatment for pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. Her mother was diagnosed with the disease when Kansagra was a young girl.
“I’ve seen her struggling through it for all these years,” she said. “There’s no cure, and she has been on medication for 21 years. That has always been a big factor for me to do research in that particular field.”
Like Kansagra, Sairafi grew up wanting to journey to the U.S. for her higher education. Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government to attend college, she had to choose a school from an approved list, and CSUSM happened to have been added to the list around the time that she was filling out her applications. Many students from her country matriculate to CSU campuses such as Long Beach and Bakersfield, but Sairafi decided to leave her comfort zone and head to San Marcos.
She studied human development and sociology at CSUSM, and served as an intern for both the Cross-Cultural Center and the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties. She left her mark such that by the time she graduated in May 2019, she was invited to be the first-ever international student to speak at commencement.
“When I remember it, it seems like yesterday,” Sairafi said. “I really enjoyed every moment, from writing my speech to rehearsing to the actual commencement. It was truly a life-changing experience.”
In contrast to Kansagra, Sairafi elected to go back to her home nation following graduation. For the last year, she has worked as a document control specialist for the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. In that role, she manages policies, clinical guidelines and other types of documents while also learning to prepare hospitals for visits from accrediting bodies.
Her time at Johns Hopkins, though impactful, could be a brief hiatus as Sairafi plans to pursue a career in public health in Saudi Arabia.
“With the knowledge I’ll be getting from Hopkins, we will do magnificent work here,” she said. “I want to give people awareness about the things they can do that promote health and give them better lives and a better environment. That’s what I’m really passionate about.”
But first, Sairafi will get reacquainted with an old friend in Baltimore, and she can hardly wait.
“It’s a new city and a big city and a new school,” she said. “And it’s good to have a friend there so we can support each other and talk to each other when loneliness sets in.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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