A life’s journey devoted to giving back comes full circle

For Awa Cisse, the word téranga — which connotes values of selflessness — isn’t just a reminder of her Senegalese roots. It’s how she wants to live her life.
Awa Cisse

Awa Cisse (Photo by David Liebowitz)

There’s a word that carries deep cultural meaning in Awa Cisse’s native Senegal; Téranga, which comes from the Wolof language, connotes the values of selflessness and generosity, and the importance of giving back to one’s community.

For Cisse, the word téranga isn’t just a reminder of her Senegalese roots, it’s a sort of guidepost for how she wants to live her life.

As a young girl she frequented hospitals for a variety of reasons. Throughout these visits, she developed a profound appreciation for all the people who give care to patients — the doctors and nurses, of course, but also those who don’t typically receive accolades.

There is this whole ecosystem of care, from the people who greet you at the front door to those who assist you when you’re leaving,” said Cisse, who is part of Trumbull College. “Every single piece of the puzzle is important, and it all helps make everything work. This is what inspired me to pursue a life in health care.”

For Cisse, a member of the Eli Whitney Students Program (EWSP), who graduates from Yale with a degree in molecular, cellular, developmental biology and French studies, that journey has taken many turns — some of which even she can’t believe.

She enrolled in nursing school straight out of high school, and over the next few years she worked in clinics and hospitals in her native city, Dakar, and later in Diembering, a remote village of southern Senegal. Eventually, she returned to Dakar to become the head nurse in a clinic.

While her journey began in Senegal, in 2018 it brought her to Georgia, where she was reunited with her father, who had come to the United States earlier. For Cisse, the change meant a temporary pause in her health care career; for a year, she worked at a call center, which not only provided a much-needed paycheck but also an opportunity to practice her English.

A year later, she enrolled in Georgia State University’s Perimeter College to resume her studies. She quickly discovered that the dimensions of health care were much wider than she’d ever imagined. “I had previously a very narrow view of what being in health care meant,” she says. “I didn’t really associate science as a component that is integral to being in health care.”

wa Cisse conducts fieldwork with the Bei Lab in Senegal.
Awa Cisse conducts fieldwork with the Bei Lab in Senegal.

At Perimeter College, mentors helped Cisse discover new opportunities and provided life-changing support. And as she built up what her advisor described as a “ladder of knowledge” in the sciences, she began to fully appreciate the link between scientific research and the delivery of clinical health care.

Cisse was completing her associate’s degree when she learned about the Eli Whitney Student Program (EWSP), which offers students with “non-traditional” backgrounds an opportunity to receive a Yale College education. While she admits she couldn’t locate Yale on a map at the time, and was skeptical that she would be accepted, she applied for admission and was accepted.

In 2021 Cisse moved to New Haven and immersed herself in her new community. (“Community is important to me,” she says. “That’s what téranga, is all about. That’s what was instilled in me!”) She enrolled in as many different kinds of courses as she could. She discussed school projects with classmates over pizza. She savored hours spent talking with friends about school, and about life, in Yale’s dining halls.

And she continued to explore the science underpinning potential public health solutions — including in the lab of Amy Bei, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, where researchers use pathogen genomics and field epidemiology to test the role of genetic diversity in combatting malaria.

Working in Bei’s lab, Cisse even had the chance to conduct fieldwork in Senegal and be again reconnected with the rural communities.

I returned to these places where I’d first learned to challenge myself and to learn about health care,” Cisse said. “But this time I was returning to my country as an apprentice scientist.”

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