Student Success Story: Varun Khattar

Varun Khattar

Major(s): Double major in Psychology and Individualized Gender and Ethnic Studies

Class Standing: Junior

Can you give us some background on the UConn Civic Scholars Collective and what your role was in implementing it?

Well, I’ve had quite the transformation as a UConn student. I came to UConn in the combined medical program, so I had guaranteed admission to UConn medical school upon graduation. I’ve since, through a variety of experiences, had my eyes opened to the world of social sciences and humanities. I realized I can really see myself more fulfilled and successful in those fields, so I think that the collective really came out of a desire to prove that the social sciences, humanities, and arts are vital disciplines and deserve a place here at UConn. It was, in many ways, a response to the increased funding that STEM programs have been receiving at UConn. I wanted to create a community for other students like me who may have felt lost and uninspired by their peers that don’t share the same appreciation for those disciplines. It’s hard to really pinpoint what the Civic Scholars Collective’s goals are on a day-to-day basis because it is still growing, becoming realized, and shaping and forming. Devin Volage and I created it after meeting regularly for a year now. We’ve been building it since March of this year, but it only existed as an idea up until a month ago when we created the name. By creating this collective we have been able to gain more support from the University and get more students involved.

What was the most difficult part?

Time management. I tend to be over involved, so time management has been something I struggle with. Devin is really organized and has been a really good rock for me, since often times I have great creative ideas, but fail to execute them. We’ve just launched it and it’s still very new, so I think it’s okay that we’ve had a bit of a slow start. We’ve done a lot of work, so hopefully it will grow in size and reach over the next few semesters.

What are some of the benefits first year students in the honors program can receive from it?

It’s important to be inspired by your peers. Many of the opportunities I’ve been given have been through the connections I’ve made. The collective is really giving people the opportunity to network with each other, learn from each other, and inspire each other. Creating that community of inspiration and curiosity has been one of my main goals. This collective really emphasizes the importance of networking. It’s important for all disciplines, but it’s especially important in disciplines like the social sciences because there are a lot less linear and established career paths.

Can you tell us a little about your internship at St. Francis Hospital?

This past summer, I interned at the Curtis D. Robinson Center for Health Equity at St. Francis Hospital. The center does research, outreach, and education to address health care disparities. I actually obtained it through the Center for Career Development and Careers for the Common Good. After going on a field trip to St. Francis, I made a connection and reached out to the President of the Center for Health Equity a few weeks later and said, “I’m interested in interning here, I’ve served as a volunteer at St. Francis Hospital for 2 years, here’s my resume, can we set up a meeting sometime over winter break?, Etc.” So it wasn’t exactly an existing internship, I kind of just carved my way into the community there and it happened really organically. It’s an incredible place to work with such diversity and dedicated people who were directly engaged in the community. I still have really strong connections with the staff there and I hope to continue to work with them.

During the internship, I worked on 3 main projects. I designed and conducted a qualitative assessment of the Center’s cross-cultural diversity and inclusiveness training. It is 10 hours of training facilitated by a social worker that talks to the healthcare professionals about diversity, language, privilege, social determinants of health, etc. I attended the training and developed a questionnaire to assess the effectiveness of the training. I also conducted a series of phone interviews after the training and asked them things like, “What does diversity really mean to you?” “Why is cultural competency important as a healthcare provider?” “Do you see yourself engaging in active listening?” I had some really amazing conversations and was able to compile them into a report that will help the Center deliver better training and continue to improve their diversity education.

I also did another research project looking at the hospital’s accounting records of insurance and treatment costs for prostate cancer patients. One of the Center’s initiatives is addressing the disparity of prostate cancer in African-American males. They do a lot of outreach in local communities by giving awareness and offering free screenings. They also pay for the treatments through a grant. I looked at all the patients they’ve had over the past several years and saw how much the Center covered for their treatments, how much the hospital covered, how much the insurance covered, and how much they had to pay out-of-pocket. So it was really looking at the business side of health care and how these treatments get paid for.

I also developed a survey to address community health needs and disparities and the community’s experiences with the healthcare system. It was just collecting additional data for the Center to understand who they’re serving and how they can better provide their services. We compiled data from different outreach events to look for trends and see if people were satisfied with the health care they were receiving. It’s actually a project that they are continuing.

What was your favorite part?

I didn’t realize how affirming and exciting it is to be in a diverse workplace. I think often times you’re one of the few minorities (sexually or ethnically) in the workplace, or any environment, and so it was nice to be surrounded by such a rich diversity of people and see your identities, values, and beliefs mirrored in your colleagues and supervisors. The mentorship I received there was incredible. They really took me under their wing and we were really able to learn from each other, so it was a really great and mutual partnership. I hope to maintain those connections.

You’ve also interned at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, what was that like?

This was another really awesome opportunity. The professor I interned with gave a talk at the Rainbow Center and I loved his speech and his research. So I got his email and we set up a time to talk and he said, “Yeah, I’d love to do research with you.” The first project I worked on was with a University of Hartford student and Dr. Matthew Malouf. We developed a “Safe Zone” LGBTQIA2-S allies and health care training to educate healthcare providers on issues of gender and sexuality and help them to be more culturally competent and inclusive. We went to a few different hospitals to pilot the training and surveyed the participants before, directly after, and 2 months after the training. We then analyzed the data to see whether or not our training was effective in changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. It was really interesting to go through the whole process of developing the training, implementing it, and then assessing it.

The second project was working with Dr. Malouf, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist. The four of us together wrote A Clinicians Guide to Intersexuality and Differences of Disorders of Sex Development. It was about healthcare specifically for psychologists and other mental healthcare providers and how they can help improve outcomes of their intersex and DSD patients. We are actually publishing it through the American Psychological Association hopefully this fall, if not, in the spring. Dr. Malouf was really generous in offering to put me as an author in the paper. He was another great mentor who helped me think about my career and research and he really made sure the internship was a mutually beneficial experience. I wasn’t just there making copies, or getting coffee, I was really involved and they valued my input. It was a really incredible opportunity.

What did you find most rewarding from these internships?

The people. I’m very much a people person and it’s why I’m so interested in my majors. I also really enjoyed being exposed to different topics and communities. I think I have learned just as much, if not more, through these internships than in any one class. The hands-on experience was really empowering and I think it helped me see that I can make a living doing this work. I always thought this would just be a hobby, but it is possible to find a career doing something you love.

What are your other on/off-campus involvements?

Currently, I’m a volunteer with Connecticut Students for a Dream, a state-wide undocumented immigrants youth advocacy organization. I’m a workshop presenter and a regional outreach lead. In that role, I help facilitate workshops with high school students and administrators on how to better serve your undocumented students, how to overcome barriers to higher education, and apply to college. I also volunteer with Kids and UConn Bridging Education, a mentorship program through the Asian American Cultural Center. We meet once a month and do activities, get food, and you really get to build a bond with them. It’s also really cool to be in such a multicultural and diverse environment. I’ve also been a part of Notes Over Storrs, a co-ed A Cappella group, for two years. They’ve become like my family here at UConn and music has always been a big part of my life. Another organization that has been really defining in my experience at UConn is the Violence Against Women Prevention Program. We facilitate workshops and host different events to raise awareness and address sexual violence and gender based inequality on campus.

How have those been helpful to you in attaining your educational/career goals?

I think it’s sometimes hard in the moment to think about where an experience fits in the overall context of your professional journey. I don’t tend to get involved in things because I think it will look good on a resume or will help me in some concrete way. Often times, something will just seem interesting to me. I’ve found that somehow all of these experiences connect with each other in retrospect. Like right now, I’m taking a Latino Studies course and one of the women I worked with over the summer at St. Francis Hospital is President of the Hispanic Nurses Association. They have a conference every year and so I connected her with my professor and now my professor is the keynote speaker at their conference next year. Even with A Cappella, I performed at Take Back the Night to celebrate allies in activism, and through performing in that event I got involved in the Violence Against Women Prevention Program. It just somehow always connects. That’s why networking and being involved and open to new opportunities is so important.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

My long-term plan is to get my Masters in Public Health and then I’d like to get my PhD in clinical psychology, social psychology, or public health— I’m not sure. I hope that I’m engaged more directly in activist work, continuing to do research, and contributing to knowledge. I also hope I’m still as motivated and have the same excitement that I have now, because it’s easy to get burnt out when you have so many interests in so many ideas. Hopefully I’ll find a little more focus and discipline.

What has been your favorite part about being a student at UConn?

So many things. We have really great professors here and I’ve been so fortunate to be able to connect with some of the smartest and most innovative visionaries across multiple departments. Also, studying abroad. I spent two months interning as a community consultant for a Guatemalan grassroots social business and it was one of the most incredible experiences. But I think my favorite part about being at UConn is the students I’ve worked with. Forget everything else, working as a facilitator for FYE and being a RA has been the most gratifying experience. I love my students and residents to death. I feel like I have really meaningful connections with them and have been able to learn from them and have a meaningful impact on their lives. The ability to touch people’s lives, especially students who are going through a difficult transition or personal issues, and being able to speak with them, connect with them, alleviate stress, and affirm their identities has been my favorite part about being a student at UConn.

Can you share any words of wisdom with your fellow UConn students?

Network. Network. Network. Sometimes it may seem self-serving and superficial, but I think that it’s about creating connections personally and intellectually. That’s really why we’re students; to create connections, share our knowledge and learn from those around us. Much of the learning I’ve had here at UConn happened outside the classroom. Sometimes it’s hard, but be engaged as a student and put yourself out there. Ask a question, attend a panel discussion, if you see an interesting lecture on the Daily Digest, go to it! If you’re not challenging yourself are you really learning?

By Brittney Austin
Brittney Austin Communications Assistant