Balu Vignesh Thavidu Rajan (MPH/MBA ’15): ‘Life for me is about Armenia and AUA’

5 min read

Balu Vignesh Thavidu Rajan (MPH/MBA ’15) is a dual degree MPH and MBA graduate of the Gerald and Patricia Turpanjian College of Health Sciences (CHS) and the Manoogian Simone College of Business and Economics (CBE) of the American University of Armenia (AUA). After successfully completing his degree studies, Balu joined the Ministry of Health in the Bisha province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He worked as a regional program coordinator for the National Tuberculosis Control and Prevention Program for six years. During the pandemic, Balu was appointed technical director of the Department of Infection Prevention and Control. He was the youngest professional to be assigned to that position. Recently, Balu has embarked upon a new endeavor. He is now pursuing a Doctor of Public Health (Dr.PH.) degree at Loma Linda University, California. During our interview, Balu talked about moving from India to Armenia, his love for Armenia, his job in Saudi Arabia, and his plans for the future.

New Life in Armenia 

The interview starts with Balu speaking in perfect Armenian about how he has just finished eating the last piece of “matnakash” (Armenian bread) while explaining to his Mexican roommate that in Armenia, “we do not use a knife but our hands to slice the bread.” Then, he reflects on his decision to study in Armenia. During his second year of high school in India, a schoolmate had told him that his cousin was studying medicine in Armenia. After graduating from high school, Balu took a three-day train ride to Delhi, where he explored his options with a representative of Yerevan State Medical University (YSMU) and also took the entrance exam. He then arrived in Armenia and started his studies in the department of General Medicine at YSMU.

Balu recalls his first impression of the country when he landed at Zvartnots Airport on September 3, 2004. It was a bit of a shock for him as, at first sight, Armenia was very different from what he had imagined or seen on the internet. 

The initial period of his new life in Armenia was challenging: the hardest part was living alone after living with his family, where his mother took care of every family member. Many changes happened concurrently, and it was a struggle to adapt to the new reality. “But there was always something in me pushing me to go forward. And if you were to ask me now which were the happy days in your life, I would point to those years,” says Balu, adding “Despite all the difficulties, those years made me understand life, make good friends, and attain all that I have now. All that I have accomplished now is because of the foundation built during those years. I don’t know if I would have learned the same lessons about life if I were studying in India. That’s why I love to say that life for me is about Armenia.”

Why Public Health? The Impact of AUA

“I was in Boston when I first heard about Public Health in 2006. Returning to YSMU in Armenia, I learned that AUA has a graduate program in Public Health,” recounts Balu. So, in 2007, he came to AUA to learn more about the program. “Right after visiting AUA for the first time and meeting with Dr. Varduhi Petrosyan, I knew I wanted to study there,” recalls Balu. He took the exam and was admitted to the 2009-2011 Public Health program cohort but couldn’t secure the funds for the tuition fee. He returned to India, worked with his father, and then applied for the Master of Public Health and Master of Business Administration (MPH+MBA) dual degree program at AUA. Balu graduated in 2015 and was one of the valedictorians at the commencement ceremony. 

“Whatever I have achieved in my life reflects the impact of AUA. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for AUA and my professors who have influenced me in so many ways,” asserts Balu, adding that almost every day, he remembers his student years at AUA and rejoices in the memories of those times. “I loved the library; I would spend all day there.”

Aside from lectures and library time, Balu remembers the social work he had completed with his classmates: visiting orphanages, participating in cleanup and tree-planting days. “If you go to the backyard of AUA, there are three trees that I planted myself; my imprints are still at every corner of the University,” he laughs. 

“I chose Public Health because of my personal ideology and how I wanted to see my life. I am a person who likes to connect with people and cannot just sit in one place. So I chose public health, which gives me that liberty,” explains Balu, also emphasizing that Dr. Byron Crape and Dr. Petrosyan, dean of the AUA Turpanjian College of Health Sciences, greatly impacted his choice to pursue a career in public health. Dr. Crape showed him what paths and opportunities exist in public health, while Dr. Petrosyan taught him how to be more specific in asking questions and identifying the needs in public health. “Both these people have impacted and crafted my path in their unique ways. To this day, when I have an important decision to make or a meeting to hold at work, I think, ‘What would Varduhi Petrosyan say? How would she want me to address a topic?’” remarks Balu.

Working in Saudi Arabia

After graduating from AUA, Balu applied for a job in Saudi Arabia. The first thing he remembers about that experience is the interview itself. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting them to know much about Armenia or AUA. But when the interviewer saw AUA and Armenia on my CV, he asked me, ‘Do you know Harut?’ After that, I was completely relaxed and felt sure I would get the job,” smiles Balu. 

Indeed, in 2016, Balu moved to the Bisha province in Saudi Arabia and spent six years working as a regional program coordinator for the National Tuberculosis Control and Prevention Program. At 29, Balu was the youngest graduate to enter the Public Health department of the Bisha province; all his colleagues were in their sixties. Thanks to the knowledge and experience he had gained at AUA, Balu’s efforts yielded great results, decreasing the tuberculosis numbers from 30 to four or five cases per year. During the pandemic, the scope of work increased drastically, and it was a tough period for health workers. “I, too, experienced the burnout that every health care worker did during 2020, because at the same time, I was also promoted as a technical director at the Department of Infection Prevention and Control at the Bisha regional level,” he remembers. Becoming a technical director at that young age wasn’t an easy job, but it was a major achievement for him, and all that was thanks to the knowledge and skills he had acquired at AUA. “Guess what’s the first thing I did after getting the promotion. Naturally, I emailed Dr. Petrosyan,” he laughs.

Loma Linda and Plans for the Future 

At Loma Linda University, Balu is completing a Dr.PH. degree in Health Policy and Leadership. Talking about his current pursuit in life, Balu mentions that he chose Loma Linda for two reasons: first, it was close to where his sister lives, and the second reason is again connected to Armenia and AUA. “When I arrived in Loma Linda for the first time and saw the surrounding mountains, it reminded me of Armenia, and it felt like home. Besides, my professor, Dr. Cape, is a proud alumnus of Loma Linda University,” he says. 

Regarding plans for the future, Balu mentions that one of the motivating factors for him to pursue a doctorate is the chance to return to Armenia to teach at AUA after a few years. “That is one of my goals for the future — the opportunity to reconnect with AUA for a long time,” he says.