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“I was a little quieter in high school,” says Laya Sathyan. “Duke is where I really grew up, learned who I was, and came out of my shell.”

To go from “a little quieter” to the 2024 Sanford Student Graduation Speaker is quite the increase in volume, but Laya isn’t afraid of changing herself or the world around her.  

Growing up in a family steeped in engineering and computer science, Laya's path initially seemed destined for similar territories. Initially entering Duke with a focus on biology, Duke's interdisciplinary spirit connected a different circuit, lighting a passion for public policy, global health, and women's advocacy that would shape her into the remarkable individual she is today.

Laya's journey of self-discovery began when she embarked on her academic pursuits at the Sanford. Although her roots were firmly planted in science-heavy studies, it was at Duke that she first saw a myriad of career possibilities. Global health, public policy, and advocacy became her new career frontiers, each offering a new realm to explore.

“Before I came to Duke, I didn’t even realize you could pursue global health or public policy as a career. I had only ever seen advocacy as volunteering,” mentioned Laya.

Advocacy Inspired by Family

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Laya with 4 friends
Laya Sathyan PPS'24 with friends.

Her foray into advocacy sprouted from familial inspiration. Witnessing her cousin's noble endeavor with "Periods with Pride," a nonprofit promoting menstrual equity and support in Chicago, Laya's eyes were opened to a stark reality: the absence of menstrual supplies for women experiencing homelessness. Motivated by this revelation, she spearheaded a similar initiative in Detroit to alleviate the menstrual hygiene woes of women in need.

At Duke, Laya's academic odyssey didn't stop at advocacy; it extended to exploring the intersection of global health and public policy. She found herself captivated by the human element within global health and policy. Her focus on women's health, particularly HPV education in Kenya through Duke Global Health’s Student Research Training Program, showcased her commitment to effecting tangible change on a global scale.

“It was the most incredible experience for me, and I’m eager to go back (to Kenya) whenever I can. It made me also want to lean more into advocacy, awareness, and education about women’s health,” said Laya.

Public Speaking: An Important Tool for Education

As she analyzed the impact of videos by Duke researchers to educate young women in Kenya, communication emerged as a potent tool in Laya's arsenal, transcending boundaries and effecting meaningful change.

“My interest in advocacy ties into why I like public speaking so much. It ties into the ability to communicate information to someone in a way that genuinely changes their mind and behavior. Communication is so powerful, and I’ve learned that you have to communicate with people where they are if you want to bring them somewhere else.”

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Laya Sathyan has participated in Bollywood dance at Duke for four years.

Duke Bollywood Dance Team Offers Connection During Lockdown

Beyond her academic pursuits, Laya's passion for advocacy and women's empowerment permeated every facet of her life. Engaging in Bollywood dance at Duke for over four years, she found solace and expression in this vibrant art form, seamlessly blending her cultural heritage with her advocacy endeavors. Through her involvement in Duke's dance team and participation locally and throughout the U.S., she has celebrated the rich tapestry of Indian culture while championing causes close to her heart.

“I’ve danced for my entire life. I studied Indian classical dance from second grade through college. I used to do Bollywood dance with friends in high school, and my mom would even choreograph dances for us to put on at local shows. Then, when I first came to Duke, everything had locked down because of COVID-19,” said Laya.

“Everything was locked down, but the Bollywood dance team here still did things to help us connect. We’d dance on Zoom meetings in our rooms while building a community. They have since become some of my closest friends, and we have been able to travel to places like Georgia, Texas, and California to perform. It has been so much fun.”

Women’s Health Is A Lifelong Focus

From researching HIV funding dynamics to exploring power dynamics in global health and public policy, Laya's academic endeavors mirrored her unwavering commitment to effecting systemic change.

After graduation, Laya plans to utilize her extensive global health and public policy knowledge to continue in health advocacy. She may even pursue a Fulbright Scholarship to research in India, where she was first inspired to study women’s health.

When she mentions India, Laya recalls her first awareness of global health. “Women’s health in India " drove me to be interested in a global perspective on women’s health and advocacy. I’d love to do something there.”

As a woman of Indian heritage, she is reminded of the role that reproductive health has played in her family history. “In my experience, this theme exists throughout women in my life. They have often discussed the lack of healthcare or sanitation services. In rural areas, the situation is even worse. Women in these areas are often forced to isolate during menstruation, which creates dangerous scenarios for them.”

Laya continues, “We have advanced so far in healthcare abilities and facilities, but some situations are still so bad largely because of a lack of education and deeply ingrained cultural ideas. Stigmas need to be broken down. I hope to be a part of that work, to give a voice to those women.”

Her voice will be heard as she takes the stage as the undergraduate speaker for Sanford’s graduation on May 10.

Laya Sathyan's Address

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Graduation Stories & Details

We will be sharing graduation stories throughout the week leading up to graduation on Sanford's website, and on our social channels. Need the graduation details? Check out the official Graduation Page to find parking info, live streams and more. 

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