As an aspiring doctor to underserved populations, Simrun Bal, ’13, recognizes the power of language to connect with patients of different cultures. This summer, she brought together her interests in global health and foreign languages in Chandigarh, India, thanks to a Critical Languages Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State.

Through the program, Bal spent 10 weeks of her summer in intensive Punjabi language classes. She says that the real-world application of her language skills has been a highlight of the experience; her final project involved researching and interviewing in Punjabi. “For me, it is so encouraging to be able to utilize and practice my Punjabi skills in a medical context, so that I can learn more about public health and medical issues here in India,” she says.

Bal, who was born in the United States to Indian parents, had previously learned some Punjabi from her father, “but I never really got interested in it until I got to college,” she says, where “you’re able to meet people of different backgrounds and see the effect that language can have.”

Another lesson she quickly learned at the University of Richmond was her interest in pursuing medicine; in a first-year biology class on Genes, Neurons, and Behavior, she found herself fascinated by the functions of the brain. She is now majoring in biology with a minor in medical humanities, and she may add a second minor in German.

In medical humanities courses, students “learn about what it means to be a doctor in terms of the art of medicine,” she says. “It’s really neat because the classes span different disciplines. Like my global health class — it’s technically a political science class.”

Her biology major fulfills her passion for science, while medicine helps her connect with people. “It’s perfect to be able to apply what I know in terms of biology and see that have a viable effect on someone’s life,” she says.

Through the University’s pre-health program, Career Development Center, and Oliver Hill Scholars program (she is a Richmond Scholar), Bal has had the opportunity to shadow several physicians and other health-care workers in the Richmond area. And through her living-learning course, she worked directly with underserved populations in the Dominican Republic and Grundy, Va.

“I’ve just really appreciated being able to take different classes and connect with professors in different disciplines,” she says. Her mentors, Associate Professor of Political Science Rick Mayes and Associate Professor of History Sydney Watts, have also guided her in career exploration, and both recommended her for the Critical Language Scholarship. 

“Medicine sort of transcends culture — you don’t have to be of a particular culture to help people, but having a language background can help you in that sense,” she says. “You’re able to help people access health care, and they feel more comfortable talking to you about their health issues.

“For me, I feel like there are so many times that you see things that are happening in terms of poverty, but you can’t really do anything about it. But if you’re a doctor, I feel like you're able to help someone with their most fundamental needs. Because when they’re healthy, they’re able get a job, they’re able to help their children. And the cycle can break — the cycle of poverty. That’s why I find [medicine] interesting.”