ATLANTA — Riti Sarangi (B.S. ’21) completed a bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University while battling challenges that, at the time, felt to her like a “Ninja Warrior”-like obstacle course caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet the Honors College student managed to build a picture-perfect resume — one that would find her named a magna cum laude graduate and admitted into Columbia University’s master’s program in public health — by focusing much of her “training” in an important area: on-campus engagement.
Students today enjoy full campus access and a variety of in-person and online courses. Sarangi’s journey, though different, still offers lessons in how to best maximize the benefits of one’s university experience.
Sarangi is from a small town in Odisha, India. After applying to various universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, she chose to attend Georgia State and entered the economics program at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies (AYSPS) in fall 2017.
“I was interested in international relations and dad wanted to make sure I got a good job afterward,” she said. “Economics is like an umbrella. There are so many things you can do, like health economics. I decided on economics due to its flexibility.”
She began getting involved on campus her second week in the U.S., first as a part-time cashier at Chick-fil-A.
“The job brought me out of my cocoon and helped me meet people,” she said. “When you are in a customer-facing job like that, it pushes you to interact, whether you like it or not. Working there three semesters made me more confident and self-aware.”
That semester she also connected with Georgia State’s student chapter of Volunteers Around the World (VAW), a global alliance of students volunteering to address health disparities.
“I was the secretary,” she said. “In spring 2018, we went to Bocas Del Toro, Panama, for two weeks of medical outreach. VAW encouraged me to expand. The students I met there are still a part of my life.”
By fall 2018, Sarangi was working at Saxbys® in the University Library and taking classes at the Student Recreation Center. After attending a VXN workout, she was invited to join VXN’s lead instructor, Makayla McGee, in a workout show taping. She attended meetings of the International Students Associations Council, making friends there, too.
Sarangi joined WomenLead, a program in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business, in fall 2019. This program enabled her to pursue her interest in gender studies while expanding her research experience through individual poster presentations first, then by conducting independent research on alcohol taxes and car crash fatality rates that she presented to AYSPS faculty under the supervision of Clinical Associate Professor Grace Eau.
“Working under Dr. Eau was my first experience in research,” she said. “I was the youngest person in the class. Completing my independent research and presenting it in front of esteemed faculty and graduate-level classmates pushed me to take more challenging courses.”
Along with the independent study, she assisted Clinical Assistant Professor Lorenzo Almada as a research assistant. Her work with Almada continued into the spring when she joined Almada and former Dean Sally Wallace for an inaugural pipeline project to encourage more undergraduates to enter graduate programs in economics.
In fall 2020, Sarangi took her classes online from India, where she was home with her family. Still active in WomenLead, she joined the International Coaching Federation’s pilot program and met Mary McCoy who, through WomenLead, provided her executive coaching, leadership development and career consultation, pro bono.
“Mary and I worked extensively on my interpersonal skills,” Sarangi said. “She helped me face my imposter syndrome.”
By this time, Sarangi had decided she wanted to build her career in public health policy. She took a class taught by Colleen Perry, director of the AYSPS Office of Career Services and Alumni Relations, and started networking with professionals in economics and public health.
“Riti and I met during the early days of the pandemic, when she was enrolled in Career Planning & Management,” said Perry. “Riti made a conscious effort to reach out to me and other faculty during that very challenging time. She made sure she stayed engaged while continuing to move forward with her professional development. She was amazing!”
By her last semester, spring 2021, Sarangi was working part time as a library ambassador while continuing to aid Eau and the Honors College on research projects. She also connected with Georgia State’s School of Public Health, where she found more mentors.
“The research opportunities and networking with an employee of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were crucial to my transition from economics to public health,” she said. “In India, we talk primarily about medicine, not public health. You get a disease, then you take medication. It’s very appealing to know that you can prevent diseases that would normally send you to the hospital.”
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of networking, Sarangi admitted, even when it’s virtual, like during the pandemic.
“By that point I had a ‘go get it’ mentality,” she said. “I was reaching out to people, following up, researching their jobs and framing interesting questions so I would not waste their time. The pandemic lockdown helped me do extensive networking that led me to better understand the field of public health. Since most people were working from home, they were always happy to speak with me during those difficult times.”
She also credits Perry for helping her move forward and on to Columbia.
“Getting in touch with Colleen and learning from her changed everything for me,” Sarangi said. “She’s one of the best resources Georgia State has. Go to the Career Services office and learn everything you can there. They are there to help you. That’s what they’re there for.”
She also encourages other students to fully engage, starting now.
“You should go for it,” she said. “There are a lot of things on campus you may not even know about. Too many students leave campus too early — as soon as their classes are over. I encourage everyone to stay and look at what’s going on. You have to be on campus to get to those events. Just show up, have no expectations and something good might happen.”