Priya Aggarwal, a youth advocate for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, is this year’s winner of Americans United’s high school essay contest. Priya wrote her essay about the importance of dividing medicine from religion, as well as her personal experiences as a high school student fighting for what she believes in.
I got a chance to talk with her about why she submitted an essay and what religious freedom means to her. Priya said she wanted to raise awareness about the issues that are important to her, and she wanted to “make people uncomfortable,” so that others could reflect on these issues as well.
Priya, who lives in Connecticut with her family, just graduated from a magnet STEM high school this past spring. Along with her love of playing the flute in the Greater Hartford Youth Ensemble, Priya is especially passionate about helping others in her community.
She describes herself as a complete “people person” who loves “interacting with others.” At her high school, she was active in a club called Democracy Matters, which is an organization aimed at increasing voter turnout.
“It is so important to get young people involved [in politics] and to make sure that their voices are being heard,” she said, adding that she wants to continue this necessary work as she heads off to college in the fall.
In addition to her political interests, Priya is also passionate about medicine and wants to become a doctor. In high school, she was able to volunteer at local hospitals as well as do research in the medical field. These experiences have exposed her to life in the medical world and helped her become aware of certain religious restrictions imposed on doctors. For example, in her essay, Priya wrote about abortion clinics being forced to read out a script to women trying to receive reproductive care. As a person who values reason, Priya believes that there is no place for a politician’s religious opinions in dictating medical practices.
This month, Priya will begin her freshman year at the University of Connecticut, a public university with about 19,000 undergraduate students. In college, she plans to continue to build on much of the work she started in high school. While she is not completely sure what she will major in yet, she is thinking about possibly double-majoring in political science and public health.
Priya also wants to combine her ambition of being a doctor and an advocate for her future patients with her interests in public policy. She stated, “Health care is my passion, and politics and health care go hand in hand in terms of religious freedom.”
For her, it is not enough to simply go through the motions. Instead, she has a desire to make sure that the health care system is treating everyone with the same attentive care, which means not preferring one set of religious beliefs over another.
We talked about Priya’s feelings toward the political and religious climate we live in today. While she described herself as not very religious, she said she is a big supporter of freedom of religion. She believes a major problem these days is our discourse around religion and government, especially since it affects so many areas including abortion and reproductive rights.
Priya said she finds that too often people are simply “attacking each other,” which turns into a “blame game.” This she concludes, is completely counterproductive if we want to live in a country that values religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Looking toward the future of religion and government in this country, she strongly believes we must focus on voting and prioritizing local politics.
Americans United wishes her the best as she heads off into her next chapter.
Rebecca Rifkind-Brown interned at Americans United in the Communications Department this summer.