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‘Go for it all’

Sharmeen Azher
Hometown: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Majors: Biology, Anthropology, Interdepartmental; Leadership in Medicine program

Jeffrey Witsoe
Professor of Anthropology

Sharmeen Azher, a pre-med student, never imagined she’d be working with traditional midwives in an isolated village in rural India, but thanks to a casual conversation in Lamont Hall with Associate Professor of Anthropology Jeffrey Witsoe, that’s how she spent the summer after her sophomore year at Union.

Witsoe has been conducting ethnographic research in northern India for years. When Sharmeen, who’d taken one of his classes, mentioned a humanitarian organization that intrigued her, he encouraged her to reach out.

The organization, known as Barefoot College, helps uplift impoverished communities through a variety of health care and other programs. Sharmeen spoke with its founder, internationally recognized activist Bunker Roy, and set up a summer internship in Rajastan.

“Professor Witsoe helped me figure out how I could make my fieldwork with dai, or traditional midwives, into a productive internship,” Sharmeen says. “He also arranged for me to conduct it as an independent study, and supported me in applying for a travel grant to India and for an undergraduate writing competition.

“I was thinking I wouldn’t get any of this, but he encouraged me to go for it all.”

Back at Union, Sharmeen submitted her essay about her fieldwork – and won a national award for best student paper on Asia from a consortium of 160 North American colleges.

“When we have students who are serious about their studies, who contribute to the greater academic conversation, it’s very gratifying to work with them and help them achieve their personal best,” says Witsoe. “Guiding student research really is a two-way street. The student and professor both learn from the process.”

Sharmeen reports that her internship reaffirmed her desire to focus on reproductive care in her medical career.

“I like how this program trains midwives to be part obstetrician-gynecologist, part grandmother. It’s very cool and wonderful to be able to reconcile progress with traditional values in this part of the world, in one of the poorest cultures, where the caste system is entrenched.”

As she moves forward with her studies, Sharmeen notes that the personal relationships with Witsoe and others are emblematic of her Union education.

She has found a network of academic mentors, including her advisers in biology, Professor Barbara Pytel, and in anthropology, Professor Michelle Osborn.

In addition, the directors of the Writing Center, the Kenney Community Center, the Foundations and Grants Office, and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life all guided her in some way.

“One of my favorite things about Union is the quality of the faculty and the staff,” Sharmeen says. “Even those in different disciplines encourage you to think holistically about the world and to challenge yourself.”

This student/professor duo works side by side:

Click play (above) or view on VIMEO