The Student News Site of Taipei American School




Real-life superhero: Sonia Rastogi advocates for the disadvantaged

Christine L./The Blue & Gold

Guest speaker Sonia Rastogi had two dreams as a child. The first one was to become an astronaut (a hope that she still holds dearly). The second was to buy an island where she can harbor rescue animals. Though she did not know it then, Rastogi had already begun her path of giving. On Sept. 18, Rastogi showed the Upper School student body at Taipei American School why that second dream was just as important as the first one.
Born to a Japanese mother and Indian father in California’s Bay Area, Rastogi was always surrounded by diverse cultures, in which communities of immigrants, including refugees from Southeast Asia and Middle East, mingled. “You are exposed to so many different cultures and so many different values. But you could also compare the discrimination and different policies in the U.S. that led to someone becoming a refugee. So I think, thinking about all that really kind of pushed me in the direction of understanding societies,” she said.
She remembers a time when she visited  a convenience store run by South Asians after 9/11, “The shop owner was like, ‘Are you from around here? Where’s your family from?’ He then said ‘You know, whether you were born here or born in South Asia, we’re all one big community and you love, I love, we all love.’”
It was not until years later when Rastogi looked back on this moment and reflected upon where that statement was coming from. “Post-9/11, there was a huge backlash against communities of color in the US and around the world, regardless of religion,” she said.

‘You know, whether you were born here or born in South Asia, we’re all one big community and you love, I love, we all love.’

In eighth grade, her history teacher inspired her to take a more active role in helping the world. The teacher, Mrs. White, explained to the class that they had the power and the freedom to affect change in policies and society. “The way that she introduced how we as youngsters could be a part of that conversation was really impactful,” Rastogi said.
Toward the end of high school, Rastgoi started volunteering with the local wheelchair tennis team in San Jose, her first experience with social work. “It was the first time that I really started to understand different disability issues and how people with disabilities engage [in their surroundings]. It was also super inspiring, because there were so many players who I couldn’t even get a point off of them. They were just that good,” she said.
During college, Rastogi majored in international studies (with a focus on political science and third world studies) and sociology. Following graduation, she worked at the Positive Women’s Network USA, a membership organization that helps create platforms for women living with HIV, as an Advocacy and Communications Coordinator. Her time there provided her with many practical skills but also many emotional experiences.
She recalled talking to women who recounted being sexually abused and exploited as children. “The first time that they had touched money in their memory was when they were kids when they were very young…[there were] adults giving them money in exchange for a sexual act,” she said.
Rastogi described the experience as eye opening, for she realized for the first time how social conditions and the lack of social support could affect individual’s life trajectory. She witnessed how lacking something as essential as basic health care could uproot a person’s life and wreak havoc on his or her dreams.
After spending several years in the workforce, Rastogi had no doubt that health is the intersection of many contemporary global issues. In 2012, aiming to gain concrete skills on how to navigate the complex structures of public health care, she went back to school at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Part of her fieldwork included going on overseas assignment in Malawi, where she and her peers facilitated forums in local communities to educate the locals on reproductive health, drug use, and healthy relationships.
This took her eventually to UNICEF, where she now works as a information management specialist on gender violence. When her students ask her what her next goal is, she does not have a definite answer. However, she knows that she is passionate about helping marginalized communities, especially in emergency context, get the education they need to help themselves.
Moreover, she is always keen on building awareness in global communities. Whether it is forced migration or public health, Rastogi encourages her audience to “think critically, think globally and push the envelope on conversations.”
For those who believe the world is too big a place for them to effect real change, Rastogi remarks that when was in South Sudan, some of her co-workers lost their homes because of an ongoing civil war but continued to partake in aid work for local citizens. “If they can do that and I can’t go into the office with maximum energy, then something’s wrong,” she said.

If they can do that and I can’t go into the office with maximum energy, then something’s wrong.

TAS Chief Information Officer Mr. Dan Hudkins, Rastogi’s former softball coach, at the Harker School, helped to plan his former student’s visit. He hopes that her story can open the eyes of students at TAS. “So many of the best and brightest kids today go on to become hedge fund managers and measure their success by how much money they make. Yet, here is someone who made a choice to do something completely different, showing what else you can do coming out of an elite education,” he said.

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