Interview with History Alum Arjan Walia, '22

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Arjan Walia, and I am from a suburb of Los Angeles called Saugus, CA. I came to Stanford in the fall of 2018 and graduated in the spring of 2022 with a degree in history and minors in Spanish and biology. I am currently completing a Master’s degree in Community Health and Prevention Research at Stanford. I am on the pre-med track, with the goal of starting medical school in the fall of 2024. My interests are broad, ranging from environmental justice and the history of race/ethnicity in the United States to California native ecosystems and the connections between human and environmental health. In my free time, I love to cook, read (history, of course), run, and hike.

How did you decide to major in History?

I entered Stanford thinking that I would major in biology, as so many other students looking to attend medical school do, and planned to minor in history. In the summer after my freshman year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Santiago de Chile, where I took an independent study with the program director, Iván Jaksić, on Chilean history. Studying the history of an entirely new country—and seeing the tangible legacies of that history throughout the country—opened my eyes anew to the power of the discipline to explain the present and inform the future, and I knew then that I wanted greater depth in my history education than the minor would allow. In my sophomore year, I took two wonderful classes with Professor Kathryn Olivarius—one about methods for studying the history of race and ethnicity and the other about the Civil War and Reconstruction—and knew that I would be most at home in the History Department. She, naturally, became my major advisor.

What are your research interests?

I am interested in many subfields of United States history, primarily in the twentieth century. Methodologically, I have focused on social history, environmental history, and the history of race/ethnicity. I am broadly interested in the history of Indigenous peoples, the American West, slavery, disease, scientific racism, and sexuality and gender.

Tell us about your senior thesis.

I wrote my senior thesis about the responses of gay men of color in San Francisco to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s. The topic began as a paper I wrote for the Research Seminar for Majors course with Professor Estelle Freedman, in which I examined responses to racism in the gay male community in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In my thesis, I followed that story through the HIV/AIDS crisis to argue that gay men of color at the time understood that neither white gay men nor the straight members of their racial/ethnic communities were producing prevention resources specific to their needs. Articulating an intersectional perspective, these activists created materials targeting their fellow queer men of color to help reduce the spread of the virus. I drew primarily from archival materials from these organizations and conducted several oral histories with activists who helped steer these groups during the crisis itself. I am incredibly honored to have been awarded the Joan Nestle Prize from the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association for this work.

What advice do you have for undeclared students at Stanford?

Explore as many of your intellectual interests as possible before declaring a major. Stanford provides so many opportunities to explore new fields through IntroSems, and lower division courses in almost every department are accessible to anyone on campus. It helps that, no matter the subject, you will be learning from faculty who are world-leading experts in their fields. (Of course, I hope this means everyone will take more history courses and love them as much as I have!) There’s no rush to declare: once you find the subject that wakes you up in the morning (or keeps you up at night) and decide on a major, there is still plenty of time to get depth in your subject area(s) of interest.

What are you up to at the moment, and what are your current career plans?

I am currently completing a co-terminal Master’s in Community Health and Prevention Research here at Stanford, part of my path towards pursuing a career in medicine. I will be finishing my thesis in the summer, after which I will be taking a seasonal job leading a restoration monitoring crew in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Then, I am taking a gap year while I apply to medical schools.

What led you to have an interest in your intended career?

I first became interested in medicine in high school, in large part because of a friend and older alumnus who helped coach the cross country team that I got to know very well. Despite being diagnosed with leukemia in college, he had continued to run for many years and, in my sophomore year, was even able to win a marathon (in 2:35.18, no less)! Medicine, I had thought until then, was about saving lives and doing complicated surgeries, not allowing patients to live their lives to the fullest. That, combined with my experiences with the medical system as a chronically injured runner, changed my whole perspective on the power of medicine and set me on a new career trajectory. Several years later, I discovered that public health is the ideal intersection of my interest in history and desire to promote wellness and prevent health from worsening in the first place. I hope to use my history and public health training to address health disparities in the United States and promote quality of life across the life course as a physician.

Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?

Medical schools are pretty flexible about your major as long as you take the prerequisite courses, so choose a major that you really love even if it is seemingly untraditional. Though I knew this when I entered Stanford, I agonized about deviating from the “standard” pre-med track for over a year before finally deciding to major in history. What I have come to learn in my time as a history major is that the humanities cultivates skills that medicine desperately needs—critical thinking, clear and effective communication, and empathy, among many others. The skills that can only come by exploring your passions will make you not only a better doctor in the long run but also a much better-rounded and more interesting person.

Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?

Studying history has imparted me with many invaluable skills that I know will continue to serve me well throughout my life, regardless of what the future brings for me. For one, having a working knowledge of the history of the United States is incredibly useful in many aspects of my life, from informing my politics to contextualizing how I view the medical system. My experience in the history department has also taught me so much about the nature of research itself—how to identify gaps in present knowledge, identify the necessary materials, and synthesize information to answer the question clearly. Being able to think critically, to interrogate sources thoroughly and construct a logical and coherent argument, will only continue to grow in importance in the age of ChatGPT and our nation’s descent into political turmoil.

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department (e.g. memorable experiences with faculty members, or courses that left a profound impact)?

While my time as an in-person history major was unfortunately shortened due to the pandemic, I have cherished my time in the department. My relationships with faculty in the department, particularly my major advisor, Professor Kathryn Olivarius, and thesis advisor, Professor Jonathan Gienapp, have been an absolute blessing. The supportiveness of history faculty was one of the main reasons I wanted to major in history, and my experiences with those mentors is no small reason for my continued love of the department. The community with my fellow history majors, whether at Coffee and Donuts, at lunches for thesis writers, or as an editor for Herodotus, has made the experience all the better. Perhaps my favorite memory, though, came at the very end of my journey in the history department last spring. After our very last lecture in Professor Freedman’s Politics of Sex course, my classmate and fellow thesis writer Hagar Gal joined me for a celebratory beer at Treehouse to commemorate the end of our undergraduate careers. A beer, of course, tastes much better when accompanied by the fascinating conversations that only historians can have.