Baha'i News -- Unity, healing are student's passions

Unity, healing are student's passions

Bahie Mary Rassekh seeks to heal the world's wounds. As a college student, she explored the ills of racism, poverty, disease and despair. As a graduate, she plans to do something about them. A tall order, perhaps. But that doesn't discourage Rassekh.

Rassekh, 21, who wrote her senior thesis on the economic and social burden of malaria, is receiving an interdisciplinary bachelor's degree in biology, sociology and psychology from the University on May 19. Along with handling a demanding academic schedule, she recently won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for outstanding community service.

Born in Canada to parents of Persian extraction - an American father and a Malian mother - Rassekh grew up in West Africa, in Senegal, Gambia and Mali, where her parents still live. At 12, she enrolled in high school at the Maxwell International Baha'i School, in Victoria, British Columbia.

Founded in Persia in 1844 by Baha'u'llah, the tenets of the Baha'i faith are one God, the unity of religions, the unity of races and the unity of humanity. This peace-loving, independent religion values diversity while viewing unity as a reachable ideal. It encourages believers to pursue justice and understanding. Rassekh's Baha'i faith has colored her view of the world and molded her four years at the University.

"My passion is unity," Rassekh said. "I strive every day to champion unity and diversity."

Rassekh entered U.Va. at 16, serving on the First-Year Council's Women and Diversity Affairs Council and the next fall, worked with the University Union to bring Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Charlottesville. She also worked with Brothers United Celebrating Knowledge and Success to organize "Reflections on Complexions," a campus forum on race. And she served as the production assistant for Spectrum Theatre's production of "Romeo and Juliet," which featured a racially diverse cast.

Rassekh participates in a myriad of cultural groups on Grounds - Persian, Arab, Native American, Afro-Caribe, Indian and the Mahogany dance troupe - along with U.Va.'s Baha'i Association and the Baha'i Southern Youth Council, which represents thousands of students in 16 states. She also has helped organize a number of special programs on Grounds that have brought students from all backgrounds together, including a prayer vigil on the Lawn the night of Sept. 11.

After her second year at U.Va., Rassekh took a leave of absence to travel throughout the southern U.S., by herself, driving a used car. She spent time in a Cherokee community in Oklahoma and lived with Baha'i families while organizing retreats for college students to discuss issues of gender and race. On returning to U.Va., she decided that her path led to medicine, so she packed her third-year schedule with pre-med classes and took her MCATs. During last year's winter break, she visited her family in Bamako, Mali, and worked with a research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that is seeking to develop a vaccine against malaria.

"Health is important because it allows humanity to demonstrate its potential," Rassekh said. "And health is a concrete contribution that I can make to humanity as I strive to make unity through diversity a reality."

Although she received acceptance letters from several medical schools, Rassekh has decided to postpone medical school for two years and first pursue a master's degree in international public health at Johns Hopkins University. There, she hopes to contribute to research at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute before continuing her studies in medical school.

Even so, becoming a doctor will be only a milestone on Rassekh's path, not her destination.

"Medicine's a tool in a larger framework of what I want to do with my life," she said. "To bring unity among the diverse peoples of the world, that is what I live for."


The Algernon Sydney Sullivan awards were established by the New York Southern Society in 1925 to honor its first president. The awards are presented annually at U.Va. and at about a dozen other universities in the United States to two fourth-year undergraduate degree candidates and a member of the university faculty or administration. Recipients receive medallions, certificates and books on Algernon Sydney Sullivan.

Charlotte Crystal, Senior Writer, U.Va. News Services P.O. Box 400229, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4229 Office Phone (434) 924-6858, Home Phone (434) 984-1462 Fax (434) 924-0938 Email

©Copyright 2002, U.Va. News Services

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