As a child growing up in Miami, Sadena Thevarajah dreamed about almost every possible career except the one she eventually chose.
“I thought of becoming a teacher, a veterinarian like my mom, an astronaut or a doctor; I never considered being a lawyer at all,” says Thevarajah, who will receive a juris doctorate May 21 from the School of Law.
During her undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Thevarajah’s attention turned to public health. After earning a bachelor’s degree, she learned that the school where she sought to earn a master’s in that discipline required two years of prior field experience.
In that pursuit, she began working for the American Cancer Society. There, Thevarajah came face-to-face with the stark reality of minority health-care disparities. She remembers vividly a pregnant mother with no family in the United States who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just as her husband was being deployed to Iraq.
“We were figuring out how to get her rides to treatment, helping her find people she could trust and speak to about treatment options with her pregnancy coming up, and getting babysitters for her toddler,” Thevarajah says. “It really opened my eyes to some real-life struggles and the gaps that exist in our system.”
It wasn’t long before Thevarajah had an epiphany: She could address health-care inequality much more effectively by becoming an attorney.
“The problems were entrenched in the infrastructure of the community,” Thevarajah says. “I decided I needed to go to law school to be able to change policy so that it wasn’t about putting on a Band-Aid to cover the problem but actually treating it.”
A little over a year after entering the WUSTL program, the law student who hungered to create equal access to wellness became well-known around campus — and across the country — for going without food.
She joined eight other Americans in a fast called “Starving for Peace” to benefit refugees in her native Sri Lanka, where she lived until the age of 3. Their efforts prompted 10,000 people to send letters to Congress, urging the U.S. government to provide nourishment and medical supplies to a group of Sri Lankans, who, like Thevarajah, are of Tamil descent.
Thevarajah’s commitment to the fast was impressive, says Maxine Lipeles, JD, senior lecturer in law, who spent time with Thevarajah in the law professor’s interdisciplinary environmental clinic. Calling her a “brilliant” student who is “very creative, very analytical and great to work with,” Lipeles applauds the conviction Thevarajah demonstrated by entering the protest even while shouldering second-year law classes.
“It wasn’t a question of what was convenient; it was a question of what needed to be done,” Lipeles says. “But she’s not an ideologue, she’s realistic; she thinks carefully about what would be effective and what makes sense.”
A White House internship will keep her in Washington, D.C., until the end of May. After that, she envisions many possible paths for fulfilling her goals. Working in a government capacity is her first choice, but she’s open to any position in which she can enhance minority wellness.
“Intervention can happen in so many ways: through the health-insurance reform, the first lady’s obesity initiative or restructuring of the FDA. I’m just trying to find a way for me to be involved in it, somehow,” Thevarajah says.
While Thevarajah’s aspirations have solidified significantly since childhood, it was those who shepherded her through her early life — her mom, her older sister, now a surgeon, and her engineer dad — who inspired Thevarajah’s “pay it forward” mindset.
“We came from a country that was less developed than the U.S., and my parents always made us feel that we were pretty privileged,” Thevarajah says. “We feel obligated to help out in any way we can.”