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Taking Action and Making a Difference

OMS IV Payal Aggarwal is TouroCOM Harlem’s Student DO of the Year

January 25, 2017
Payal Aggarwal was named TouroCOM Harlem's Student DO of the Year.
Payal Aggarwal was named TouroCOM Harlem's Student DO of the Year.

Working as part of Habitat for Humanity, Aggarwal helped build a house for a family fleeing the violence of North Carolina’s inner-cities.

“They told us how they had to crouch down when they entered their government housing to avoid bullets,” Aggarwal recalled. “They were so grateful for the work we did. It was so humbling.”

She took a stark lesson from the experience that she applied to her life.

“If you want to make a difference you can,” she said. “Or you can do nothing.”

The visit to North Carolina helped make permanent the lessons that had been instilled early on in Aggarwal’s life. During family trips to India where her family emigrated from, Aggarwal’s parents always insisted on spending time volunteering with the poor and at mental institutions. Those experiences coupled with the North Carolina visit gave shape to the then-18-year-old Aggarwal’s life. She eventually become the president of the Habitat for Humanity club at NYU and volunteered on more than a dozen service missions during her time at the university.

“Community service changed from this thing you could do once every couple of months to something you can make a part of your life,” recalled Aggarwal.

After graduating, she spent a gap-year doing cancer research at NYU and worked at Columbia Presbyterian as a pediatric anesthesia technician. Through a Google search, she discovered the TouroCOM Harlem’s Master of Science Program in Interdisciplinary Studies in Biological and Physical Sciences and applied. The school’s mission of helping the underserved resonated with her.

During her first-year of the master’s program, Aggarwal realized that there was another population that could use some support: her fellow students. Aggarwal became the class representative for the master’s students and became the representative for her class as soon as she enrolled in the DO program at TouroCOM Harlem.

“The best way to serve a large number of people is if you’re in a position of leadership,” explained Aggarwal about her choice.

In her second year, Aggarwal ran for vice president of TouroCOM Harlem’s student council. As vice-president, she helped run a number of activities for both her classmates and the local community, including health fairs and toy drives.

“There are four McDonalds in a four-block radius,” she explained. “High blood pressure is rampant in the area. We have a population in need right next to us.”

As a medical student, Aggarwal also continued volunteering on service missions. At last count, she has participated in more than twenty, volunteering all across North America, South America and India.

Two years ago, Aggarwal joined the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents, a national organization comprised of former OMS student council presidents and vice-presidents. She was then elected as a global health representative on the council and Aggarwal focused her efforts on improving mental health care for OMS students.

"We decided we wanted to discuss the stigma of mental health,” said Aggarwal. “We found that students were being impacted by studying non-stop and not seeing their families.”

Together with other board members, Aggarwal launched an OMS Day of Wellness, where students in more than 32 Osteopathic medical schools took a day for the benefit of their mental health. Programs ranged from panels about surviving medical school, to yoga classes and smoothie bars and therapy dogs.

Aggarwal will be graduating this year and is aiming to become a pediatric oncologist. She said her decision to go into pediatric oncology stemmed from another volunteering effort she did at Camp Happy Days, a camp in South Carolina for children diagnosed with cancer.

"Camp Happy Days’ campers saw cancer very closely, but overall, they refused to let the disease dictate their lives,” Aggarwal wrote in an article for the website The DO. “The lesson I learned from the campers is that most people can choose whether they want to define their lives by the hardships they encounter or by their blessings and the things that bring them joy. I also learned to see the campers as children first and patients second. They were much more than their diagnoses.”