When Sargun Handa walked onto the TEDxSnoIsleLibraries stage in 2017, she was nervous.
It wasn’t because she was speaking to a large group at her own Kamiak High School. She’d spoken to a crowd many times larger than this. But this was the first time she’d spoken publicly about how she overcame her own health and emotional struggles through community service.
“Community service is my passion,” Handa told the audience.
In high school, Handa’s sister and parents strongly suggested which high school clubs she should join to boost her academic credentials. Handa had other ideas.
“I pushed back in defiance and I joined a lesser-known club instead,” she told the audience. “I joined this new club because it was the first one in the catalog that said ‘fun.’ I wanted to have fun for once.”
By her junior year, Handa was in Key Club, Human Rights Club, Natural Helpers, Free the Children, Knights in Action and Orchestra Council, and was a varsity golfer. Outside of school, she wrote for “The View from Harbour Pointe” magazine, served as an aerospace ambassador for the Institute of Flight Museum, interned at the Mukilteo Chamber of Commerce and served on the Mukilteo Youth Advisory Committee.
Handa said the activities helped her cope with her years-long fight with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Crohn’s often kept her out of school and affected her grades.
“Putting myself in the service of others helped me find happiness and confidence,” she told the audience. “I couldn’t have the time to focus on being sick. There was so much good going on. Life was moving on, I was going on adventures, and everything seemed like it was falling into place…
“And then Nina happened.”
Nina was Handa’s close friend and classmate, and she knew Nina battled depression. Nina died by suicide in their sophomore year.
After Nina’s death, Handa initially sought solace on social media, as teens do. People pledged to wear black for Nina.
It was a fleeting promise.
In Kamiak’s hallways, Handa told the audience, “It seemed as if nothing had ever happened. It was surreal. And when I went home, on social media I saw Snapchat and Instagram stories (about Nina) disappear one by one, as if the suicide was grief-worthy for only 24 hours.
“And I realized something then,” she continued. “Teens communicate through cyberspace, not reality. We express ourselves through shorthand texting and emojis. Social media may connect us at times, but this time it disconnected us — from reality, from the impact of Nina’s death.”
Near the end of her talk, Handa said, “I’m sharing Nina’s story today and how hers affected mine to carry on her legacy, because there may be a Nina in the audience right now. Someone who’s struggling with depression right now. And let me tell you, you’re not alone.
“I was a Nina at one point. The person sitting on your right and sitting on your left was a Nina at one point. We all feel alone and afraid, but social media hides that because it gives us a false sense of perfection and connection. Community service though, gives us a real sense of connection. Volunteering allowed me to take control of my own life, and that’s what I want to share with you.”
Now a freshman at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Handa is reflective about her 2017 talk.
“My passion overtook me as I went on speaking,” Handa said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’ like I was getting a weight off my chest.”
Today, Handa is living the title of her TEDxSnoIsleLibraries talk, “Be a Voice, Not an Echo.”
She’s a prospective psychology major with minors in leadership studies and communication studies.
Handa may not be quite as involved in community service as she was at Kamiak, but she still “does a little.”
Handa is a member of the Honors Program and vice chair of the WWU Student Senate. She volunteered to go to Lobby Day in Olympia to discuss the university’s underserved counseling needs and understaffed counseling center with state Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, another Kamiak alumnus. She organized a mental-health awareness day during finals week, when student test anxiety runs high.
Nina’s memory figures into Handa’s desire to study suicide prevention and research through psychology. The leadership studies and communication studies minors allow her to improve her public speaking skills. The Honors Program also gives her “a holistic view on history and writing,” which can be seen in her contribution to “20 Beautiful Women, Volume 6.”
Handa is still no fan of social media. It’s a tool she uses to deliver information and it’s good for promotion, but it doesn’t leave a tangible connection, she said.
“I’d much rather have a face-to-face interaction,” she said. “I observed in my first quarter at college, a lot of people handle conflict through social media, but you can’t read ‘tone.’ Personally, I’m trying to communicate with conflict in person, less with text. It’s productive and healthy.”
Handa has had time to come to terms with the loss of her friend Nina and her struggle with Crohn’s.
“I still can’t do anything about a chronic illness and Nina,” she said, “but I can do something about my reaction.”
Handa said her TEDxSnoIsleLibraries experience keeps her involved in her community, focuses her interest in mental health, and makes her a more confident and mature public speaker. She’s grateful for the peers who nominated her to speak.
“The opportunity came to me,” Handa said. “The talk was the starting point for everything I’ve earned so far. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Sno-Isle Libraries is organizing another TEDxSnoIsleLibraries talk with the theme Quantum Connections on Saturday, May 9, at Edmonds Center for the Arts.