Aparna Chintapalli ’19 stopped listening to music for pleasure at age 11. She also stopped drawing, painting and journaling.
Just a fifth grader, Chintapalli lost her father to a massive heart attack. The shock of his sudden death left her family bereft and, in her grief, Chintapalli repeated a mantra to herself: To be strong for her family.
Chintapalli, the second of three children, was born in South India, and after several moves settled in Houston, Texas after her father first came to the U.S. to work as a software engineer. The young family was stable, living in a middle-class suburb called Spring. Chintapalli was drawn to healthcare and medicine — aside from many of her relatives being doctors – it was really the love and encouragement from her mom and dad that pushed her towards the field.
“My dad always told me that I would be a good doctor because I had a big heart, that I cared about people a lot, even a little too much at times.”
Already studious, Chintapalli became even more laser-focused on her academics with her father’s death — she was back in school just two days after his passing, bottling up her grief.
“Grief and mental health issues are seldom talked about in South Asian American households. There’s this pervasive culture that stigmatizes conversations like this. And I think it was even more damaging to not be able to talk about these issues at a time when I needed to the most,” she says.
It wasn’t until Chintapalli moved to Pomona College that she came face-to-face with a difficult realization: While her fellow sponsor group members got to share about travel and other fun experiences during their high school years, she didn’t know what to talk about. “All these years I have been grieving and relentlessly studying, what am I supposed to share in front of everyone?”
“I had stopped listening to music and doing all of the things I once found happiness in. I realized I wasn’t able to talk about modern artists with my friends because it’s like time froze in 2007 and I was just stuck, and I didn’t want to let go of those memories — of the past — I think it is because my depth of grief is just as large as my depth of love, so it was never easy for me to get over that feeling of loss. ”
After a difficult first year, Chintapalli started making close friendships with women of color on campus, who like herself, had experienced some form of trauma in their early childhood.
“Opening up to them allowed me to connect with them at a deeper level — we’d have these long talks sitting in hallways, in our rooms, debriefing the past and as I started opening up a little bit, I finally felt a bit more comfortable on campus, and from there, I became inclined to join campus organizations. That’s how I joined [the Office] of Housing and Residence Life and later, the Wellness Peers,” she says.
The Wellness Peers is a group of students, who through the Office of Student Affairs, are a resource to increase proactive dialogue and action around wellness, which includes mental, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual health.
“When I became a sponsor, I was tasked with the responsibility to support other students. I had to be much more self-aware of my privileges and positionality around my peers to make sure I was doing my best to make them feel comfortable. I actually learned a lot about my peers when they opened up to me — it’s when I realized there was an overwhelming need to address mental health issues on campus,” says Chintapalli, who became a sponsor to first-year students as a sophomore, then a head sponsor her junior year and is now a resident advisor. “I’ve always been interested in healthcare and I see a lot of issues, not just about physical wellness but of the mind and soul interactions that we don’t really talk about.”
Chintapalli is majoring in public policy analysis (PPA) with a concentration in biology, which has provided her with opportunities to understand the infrastructure of healthcare and answer questions like the one she’s exploring for her senior thesis project: How do we increase access to dental care by bridging the medical-dental divide?
“My parents would always tell me that I have a helping nature and that I should consider this path towards healthcare,” says Chintapalli, who has worked summers at pediatric dental offices back home in Indiana, where her mother moved her and her siblings after her father’s death. “I didn’t realize how diverse the healthcare field is. We often put medicine at the top of the field, but as I kept searching, I was drawn to dentistry,” she adds, saying she loves working with her hands.
Through this work, she found her calling: pediatric dentistry.
Last year, Chintapalli interned with local organization Uncommon Good where she coordinated and led a health education outreach program to serve the group’s clients, including low-income Latino families. She worked to bring students from Western University of Health Sciences to talk about dental hygiene and oral health issues and connect them to free dental screenings.
“A lot of low-income children miss school if they have cavities, they have pain, and some even end up in the emergency room. That is what drove me to my thesis, which is about the mouth and body divide, and how it is rooted in a racial and social justice issue — this is where my liberal arts education comes in,” says Chintapalli, who is doing background research to understand the current dentistry model to better serve underserved communities.
In her final semester at Pomona, Chintapalli feels prepared for what’s next: she’s planning a gap year, working as an oral health coordinator before she enters dental school.
She also feels prepared thanks to the strong bonds she’s made at Pomona: “After a strenuous search, I’ve held onto some deep friendships here and together we’ve helped each other and given each other reciprocal love. I found a source of healing.”
“Thinking back on it, in addition to putting a halt on all the things I loved, I also just stopped speaking. It’s strange to think that there was a time in my life where you couldn’t get me to shut up. There are so many reasons that people suppress their grief, some don’t want to upset or burden others, others don’t feel comfortable enough, or in my case, I felt like even if I shared something, I would still feel alone at the end of it.”
“I’ve just recently began to realize that it is about time that I reclaim my voice because I have a lot to say, and I’ve learned more lessons than I would have ever imagined being at Pomona. “
She has some words of advice for students, who like herself, have experienced a traumatic event as children or young adults: “Be kind to yourself and ask for help even though it is very difficult, even if there’s no dialogue about it — people are out there to help you, yes, it’s a hard search because you’re vulnerable, but letting it build up is so much worse.... Because you can’t go into the world and help others until you help yourself.”