Student Profiles

Sonia Alam '07

Sonia Alam

Sonia Alam '07

Majors: Sociology and Gender and Women's Studies
Hometown: Bridgewater, New Jersey

Why did you choose to come to Bowdoin?
My eldest brother attended Bowdoin so I was well acquainted and comfortable with the school by the time I started applying to colleges. I also spent many summers on Sebago Lake, so Maine felt like a second home to me. Bowdoin's small classes and beautiful campus really appealed to me because I attended a small high school and I was looking for a similar environment for college. I was also impressed at the closeness between students and faculty that the small campus allowed. I live in New Jersey, so Bowdoin is far enough away to allow for some independence, but also close enough to my home that I still feel connected to my family and friends.

Why did you choose your major?
I am a Gender and Women's Studies and Sociology double major, but I was initially pre-med. Both my parents are physicians so I just assumed that I would study medicine. I originally wanted to double major in Biology and Asian Studies. However, during the second semester of my first year I took Introduction to Sociology. Before taking the class, I had never even thought of pursuing sociology and I didn't even know what the subject was. After taking the course I realized how vested I was in a lot of the issues discussed in the class and decided that I really must be a sociology major.

I decided to pursue the Gender and Women's Studies major after taking sociological theory during my sophomore year. The last section we explored in the class was feminist theory. We read an article called "The Trouble with Gender: Tales of the Still-Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociological Theory" by Joan Always, and I was hooked. The article helped me realize how critical and ongoing gender issues and women's issues are and the necessity of examining gender. I had already taken several courses in the Gender and Women's Studies program, so the decision seemed feasible as well as desirable.

What has been your favorite course at Bowdoin?
Introduction to Human Population, taught by Professor Nancy Riley, was my absolute favorite class at Bowdoin. The class was inspiring. It opened my eyes and my mind to issues of reproductive health, AIDS, global health, revealing the importance of public health. We learned how to analyze demographic statistics to understand what they really represented in a particular country.

One of the most important aspects of the class was understanding how women's rights and education for women (especially in the least-developed countries) affects child health, family health, and even community health. I also began to understand the very real need for public health. The class introduced to me to issues surrounding raising women's status, child health, mortality, reproductive health, and disease. Since taking the class in the fall of 2005, I have continued to be inspired by it.

What professor or professors have especially inspired you during your time at Bowdoin?
Professors Susan Bell and Nancy Riley of the Sociology Department have been particularly inspiring for me. When I decided to drop the pre-med/biology path, I thought I would have to drop my interests in health (which were very disorganized at the time) in order to pursue sociology. However, when I met Susan and Nancy, I realized that there is a whole field in sociology devoted to health issues. I was relieved and thrilled to know that I could study health in a non-medical context.

Further, Susan and Nancy both helped me discover and organize my interest in HIV and AIDS in a sociological context. Both Introduction to Human Population and the Sociology of Health and Illness revealed to me the importance of understanding the social implications and aspects of HIV/AIDS. Susan and Nancy proved instrumental in directing me to the proper resources for pursing this interest, and for this I am forever grateful. I have learned so much from them about how to read closely and critically analyze text, statistics, tables, and interviews. Their invaluable advice and inspiring classes have helped me to realize what I want and need to do with my life.

Have you engaged in any independent research while at Bowdoin?
During the end of my sophomore year, I spoke to Susan Bell about possibly pursuing an independent research project on HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia. By the beginning of my junior year, with the help of Nancy Riley and Susan Bell, I had fine-tuned my interest to examining HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. They helped me apply for a Freeman Grant to study how AIDS is occurring in Malaysia. I received the grant in October 2005 and spent the spring semester researching HIV/AIDS in the Malaysian context with Susan Bell, so that I would be prepared to do research once I arrived in Malaysia.

I then spent two months in Malaysia doing extensive interviews with directors and staff at Nongovernmental Organizations. The Malaysian AIDS Council was one of the organizations I worked with. I also interviewed infectious disease physicians, and government officials to understand the institutionalization, epidemiology, and prevention of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. I learned so much from going to Malaysia and visualizing the organizations that I had spent the semester researching. The interviewees provided invaluable information that I would not necessarily have been able to access had I not traveled to Malaysia.

I am now pursuing an honors project with the combined research data from the semester of independent research and the summer research in Malaysia to understand the challenges and realities of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to pursue such an amazing project.

What extracurricular or work experiences have you had at Bowdoin?
I have been singing since the day (perhaps even the hour) I arrived at Bowdoin. I have been in the chamber choir since the fall of my first year here and I adore it. I love the choir experience and the community and structure that it provides for me. Additionally, I have been an active member of BOKA, a coed a cappella group on campus, since my freshman year as well. Being part of the a cappella community at Bowdoin has been an interesting and enjoyable experience as well, and I have made so many close friends through my involvement in this sphere.

I am also actively involved with domestic violence awareness on campus and help with Family Crisis Services in Portland. Once a month, I work on a helpline and help victims of domestic violence obtain legal information and create safety plans to get out of dangerous situations. I also plan to begin volunteering at the shelter connected with the Family Crisis Services. Doing this kind of work keeps me grounded and helps me to contextualize my thoughts about domestic violence. All these activities have shaped my experiences at Bowdoin tremendously.

What have you done during your summers?
The summer after my freshmen year I taught swimming lessons to young children and worked as a lifeguard. The summer following my sophomore year I worked for the International Health Awareness Network (IHAN), which functioned out of the United Nations in New York City. During this internship, I did extensive grant research and studied the health consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM), particularly in Somalia. The Network was interested in creating a health clinic for women with reproductive health issues relating to FGM so I did background research for their grant applications and to assess the health needs of these women. I appreciated my opportunity to help the situation in a country where around 95 percent of all women currently have had to experience female genital mutilation (information found at

As I already discussed, the summer following my junior year I pursued independent research on HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. During my time there, I was impressed by the strength and determination of the nation's citizens to remedy the problem. For example, an HIV positive former drug user had risen to manage Pengasih, a private, nonprofit rehabilitation center I worked with. The dedication of the nation to provide services for people living with HIV/AIDS is very encouraging.

What is your best Bowdoin memory?
I think my favorite memory at Bowdoin is BOKA's Fall Invitational Concert in November 2005. It was our first big invitational so we used the Druckenmiller Hall Atrium and invited two groups to come sing with us. We were all warming up, getting ready, and getting excited to perform but it didn't seem like a lot of people were there. But when we finally came on stage to introduce the show, the Atrium was packed. I had never seen so many people at a BOKA concert before. It was positively thrilling! I don't think we had ever or have ever performed so well as that night since my first year here. It reminded me of why I love my a cappella group so much and made everything absolutely worthwhile!

What are your plans for after graduation?
After I graduate I intend to work to provide AIDS related services in the United States. I am also toying with the idea of spending the summer in Bangladesh, where my family is from, and learning how to do reproductive health education in a small village called Nandina. I hope to work in this realm of public health for a year before going to graduate school to get my masters in public health. I specifically want to pursue international disease control and prevention. After that I hope to pursue a career in this field, hopefully with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and reproductive health education.

What advice would you give to a prospective student or first-year about the Bowdoin experience?
Even if you think you know exactly what you want to do before you get here, you should definitely experiment with classes and disciplines before deciding on your path. I am so glad that I decided to take sociology classes, even though I had my heart set on studying medicine. I don't know if I would have come to that revelation without having been experimental. Bowdoin has so many amazing departments and such a wonderful faculty that it seems almost criminal to stick to one area throughout one's entire Bowdoin career.

Story posted on October 30, 2006

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