Riding High – ISKL Alumna on a Cancer Prevention Mission

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ISKL Alumni Ashka Dighe

Despite classifying herself as not “even an athlete”, ISKL Class of ‘17 Alumna, Ashka Dighe, will next year cycle more than 4,000 miles from Texas to Alaska to raise awareness for cancer prevention, treatment and cure. Although she left ISKL after Grade 8, Ashka, who now studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says ISKL is where she found her passion for policy, advocacy, health and human rights.

Ashka is currently triple majoring in B.S. Neuroscience, B.A. Health & Society, and B.A. Plan II Honours. Despite a very full academic load, she is also managing to find the time to train for the grueling Texas 4000, motivated by her own family’s history with cancer.

Ashka shares her newfound passion for cycling and long-held interest in advocacy with ISKL’s Lynette MacDonald.

LM: Why would anyone want to ride a bicycle from Texas to Alaska?

Texas 4000 for Cancer is a leadership development organization and a cancer advocacy resource that uses the 4500+ mile bike ride as a platform to raise money and awareness in the fight against cancer. I’ve committed to doing this because along the way, we stop through hundreds of cities and towns, many of which are rural and far from major hospitals, to bring prevention resources to underserved communities. This is what makes Texas 4000 so unique compared to other grant-giving organizations. Many of my teammates ride in honor or memory of people in their lives who are fighting cancer or who’ve lost their battle to cancer. I ride for my Nani (maternal grandmother), my Aji (paternal grandmother), my best friend’s mother Judy, and some of my mother’s very close friends, all of whom were once diagnosed with cancer but caught it early enough to have surgery and are now cancer-free. I’m so lucky that I haven’t lost anyone I know to cancer and I believe it’s because all these women in my life had access to resources and knowledge to identify cancer early on and get treatment immediately. Through Texas 4000, I hope to bike through these communities, inspire hope, bring knowledge of prevention, and raise money for the fight against cancer.

LM: Have you always been a cyclist? Is it something you did in Malaysia?

I wasn’t a cyclist until recently… I actually wasn’t even an athlete until joining this organization. I remember having to do the pacer test at ISKL and I was always the first one to tap out while literally everyone else could keep running and I was always so embarrassed. I tried to join Touch Rugby, Volleyball, and Palko’s JV Dance but I wasn’t ever good enough. The mission of Texas 4000 is what motivates me to cycle and even though I struggle to get through every mile in our training I feel like what we’re doing is important and worth the effort.

LM: You are very actively involved in the It’s On Us social movement at the University of Texas at Austin. What’s the movement about and how and why did you become involved?

It’s On Us is an organization recently started at UT that works to bring resources to survivors of sexual violence. At the University of Texas at Austin, a study showed that 20% of undergraduate women will experience sexual assault before graduation. At a school of over 40,000 people, that’s around 10,000 women being assaulted every year. Through It’s On Us, we’ve partnered with Senators’ offices, have worked closely with the university administration, and have hosted feedback sessions with the student body to identify issues and come up with practical solutions to help students stay in school. A lot of the feedback we received taught us that students drop classes, are unable to keep up with academic commitments, and sometimes leave the university as a consequence of being assaulted. As Vice President of It’s On Us, my role is to advocate for more resources and accommodations to help survivors of sexual violence stay on track to graduate university, and to get adequate advice/counsel when going through Title IX investigations and hearings.

LM: What is your advice for ISKL students considering applying to the University of Texas in Austin? 

When I applied to The University of Texas at Austin, I really did not anticipate enrolling as it wasn’t my top choice and I wanted to move away from my parents in Houston. But, UT Austin is the best thing that’s happened to me. Maybe I’m biased, but I think the UT forty acres is the place to be. My advice when it comes to applying is to get your application in as soon as possible, because students are admitted on a rolling basis. Your experience at UT is going to be what you make it. The opportunities are abundant, but you have to go seek them yourself! Coming from a small school like ISKL to a campus of over 40,000 people, it was hard to put myself out there, to meet new people, and to take risks by signing up for things. But once I did, I met some of the most incredible people and learned so much about myself. When it comes to school spirit, nothing beats UT. We’re all in love with our mascot, our blood is burnt orange, and we sing our school’s fight song with pride any time of day or night. UT has something for everyone, whether your ‘thing’ is Greek Life, religious orgs, intramural sports, theatre, academic societies…we’ve got it all! You just have to put yourself out there and apply!

LM: Were you very active in student governance at ISKL? Which clubs were you involved in? Or did you participate in sports?

I did serve a year in student government at ISKL when I was in middle school but since I left before high school I didn’t really experience the full extent of student governance. I was quite involved in theatre with Tina Casey, performed in the annual Middle School musical/theatre performance every year, and participated in ISTA (Berlin). I was also a part of the dance team with Karen Palko and had so much fun performing in the dance shows! I did swim for a bit, but as I mentioned earlier I truly sucked at sports. When I was at ISKL, I did a lot of equestrian before and after school and took part in dressage and show jumping competitions, which took up the bulk of my extra-curricular time. One of my favorite extracurricular activities offered through ISKL was Model United Nations. Somewhere in between preparing for 5th grade Night of the Notables, Ann Whiting’s 7th grade Humanities class when we learned about the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Code, and debating at MUN conferences, I found my passion for policy/advocacy, health, and human rights.

LM: What was your favorite thing about ISKL?

The most valuable thing I gained from spending my early adolescent years at ISKL was the lesson to have no boundaries. No other school has field trips for twelve-year-olds like Malaysia week where we spend that time exploring our independence 60 ft underwater, or in a tent in the jungle. ISKL’s approach to teaching and learning always challenged the status quo. When I left ISKL and described our classroom structure to my new teachers and peers, they were shocked.

LM: Is there a teacher/teachers/counselor who were particularly influential for you? Why?

Humanities was my favorite subject by far because it pushed me to think about things from new perspectives in a way that no English or History classes I’ve taken in life after ISKL have. Ann Whiting and Patricia Podorsek both challenged us to think about the world around us, looking at the lost generations in Australia and police corruption in Kuala Lumpur, and compare it to examples throughout history. Now, as I’m studying public policy and health disparities based on socioeconomic status, I still depend on the skills I learned through those classes. I think both of those teachers were impactful because I don’t think I could have gotten those experiences from any other class.

LM: It’s a long way from Texas to KL – what do you miss about ISKL and Malaysia?

I miss the food and I miss the warm weather! Some things I took for granted when living in Malaysia were the weather (even though it was often humid and raining, it was always warm enough to be outdoors), and the diversity on our campus that created a really beautiful level of openness and cultural understanding that everyone at ISKL was raised with.

LM: Back to the ride…What essentials will you take with you and how will you document the ride?

We’re each allowed to bring a duffle bag and a small backpack, that will mostly contain all my cycling gear, basic toiletries, and a few sets of clothes for the evenings. After moving from country to country as a child, living in over a dozen homes and many more hotels and serviced apartments in between, I’ve come to realize that all the stuff I really need can easily fit into a duffle bag. Especially when you’re traveling with friends or family who keep you company on the adventure, all you really need is a few clean sets of clothes and Google Maps. I’ll be documenting the whole ride through my Instagram page @ashkatoalaska2020 and posting pictures of the places I go and the people I meet! I’ll be sharing some of this through Facebook as well. If these platforms are inaccessible to anyone who wants to get updates, I’d be happy to start an email newsletter as well!

LM: How can people support your ride?

Support comes in so many forms and all are appreciated. From words of encouragement to monetary donations, all forms of support motivate us to continue biking and engaging with the fight against cancer. If you’re interested in donating, any amount helps! https://www.texas4000.org/rider/2020/ozarks/ashka-dighe/

If there’s anyone in your life who has been affected by cancer, I would love to dedicate a portion of my ride in their honor. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] !

LM: What’s your plan once you reach Alaska?

We have a phrase we say in Texas 4000, “find your next Alaska”. Right now, Alaska is “the finish line” and while I am still a student focusing on school and other activities, biking to Alaska really is my biggest short-term goal. After reaching Alaska, I hope to redirect my time and efforts to get more involved in local health care related public policy. In the Spring of 2021, the 87th legislative session will commence and I’d love to work with relevant senators and be involved in promoting and testifying for bills like I did in the 86th session. I’ll also be able to invest more time in my school work to wrap up my three majors and graduate! And obviously, after I reach Alaska the fight against cancer isn’t over, so I’d like to stay involved with Texas 4000 and all the organizations I’ve been volunteering with (Dell Children’s, Be The Match, Livestrong, etc.) to continue fighting cancer.

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