While studying neuroscience at the University of Iowa, Suraj Rao has been able to maintain a connection to his cultural heritage in Southeast Asia.
Sara Epstein Moninger
Justin Torner

Like many pre-med students at the University of Iowa, Suraj Rao has found his coursework adequately rigorous to prepare him for medical school. Unlike his peers, however, the Singaporean citizen had to put those studies on hold for two years while he completed a compulsory stint in the Singapore uniformed services.

After his first year on campus, Rao returned to the island country his family left in 2010 and satisfied its conscription service for men 18 and older, ultimately becoming a lieutenant in its army infantry.

“As a lieutenant, I had the privilege to manage 200 recruits and work with sergeants,” says Rao, who graduated from high school in Fairfield, Iowa. “The experience taught me a lot about leadership, which I have been able to translate to my academics at Iowa.”

“Being part of the Indian Student Alliance, I have never once felt distant from my roots.”

Suraj Rao
University of Iowa neuroscience major and president of the Indian Student Alliance

At the University of Iowa, about an hour north of his family’s new home in Fairfield, Rao is working toward a neuroscience major while also contributing to research projects in two campus labs, participating in intramural basketball, and volunteering at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City. Perhaps most formative has been the time he has spent involved with the Indian Student Alliance, a student organization he now leads as president.

“My identity is almost entirely defined by my culture, and because it is such an integral part, I believe that wherever I go I must continue to hold onto it,” he says. “Being able to share that passion for your culture with people of similar intents is a very rewarding experience because you get to bond over those shared interests. Through hosting events and dinners, we get to spread our culture and educate the broader community so it can also be part of it.”

In his own words...

On what Suraj Rao has enjoyed most about Iowa:
“Being able to experience cultures from all over the world. I was surprised by the diversity on campus. I have thoroughly enjoyed a number of multicultural events, such as Henna Night presented by the Pakistani Students Association, Eid Dinner from the Muslim Student Association, the Multicultural Showcase organized by Campus Activities Board, Mock Shaadi hosted by the South Asian Student Alliance, and so many more.”

On the importance of celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May:
“Having an entire month dedicated to Asian Pacific American heritage is a really good thing. As a minority group in America, there is a lack of representation in many areas, and in Hollywood there is a perpetuation of certain stereotypes, so having a month when we can highlight the achievements, hard work, and efforts of Asian Pacific Americans is a plus—and, I think, a win for society in general. We have a long way to go, but small steps are important.”

The Indian Student Alliance hosts four major cultural events on campus each year, including Nachte Raho, a dance competition that draws entries from across the country along with hundreds of spectators, and Diwali, a cultural showcase featuring dinner and performances that is produced in collaboration with the South Asian Student Alliance.

“Being part of the Indian Student Alliance, I have never once felt distant from my roots. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most highly motivated people looking to spread our shared Indian culture,” he says, adding that the responsibility of running a student organization has complemented his academics. “Managing and leading a group of students to successfully accomplish a task has definitely made me more disciplined.”

Rao plans to utilize that discipline as he prepares to take the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, in July 2020 and graduate in December. He wants to complete a master’s degree in biomedical sciences before applying to medical school and becoming a cardiologist at a U.S. hospital.

Though no one else in his family has a career in medicine, Rao recalls being fascinated by a YouTube video of a heart surgery when he was 10 years old.

“The idea of helping people in need motivates me,” he says. “My end goal is to be in a position to help people—those with disease, those with disabilities. I want to try to make their lives better.”