Zainah Khan, 27, is a natural storyteller. Everything, from her words to the motions she uses to emphasize her tales, is delicately arranged to create momentous impact on her listener. The fact that she is an artist is unsurprising; her primary occupation as a public health consultant is more difficult to comprehend, but upon further investigation, entirely understandable.
Khan was born in the United States, but spent most of her childhood in Jeddah, part of the Al Hamra district in Saudi Arabia. “My 3rd grade teacher gave us an assignment. She said to find a flower and draw it. But even in the suburbs in Saudi Arabia, I had a thorough look around the rundown apartment compound and realized that there were, in fact, no flowers to draw. Not even the boring periwinkles that grew on some shadier roadsides.” She remembers looking through books, instead, to understand what a flower was like. “I took to our dusty collection of encyclopedias as a secondary reference and flipped through the glamorous flora that existed seemingly everywhere else in the world,” she explains, “and I remember having a momentary crisis when I understood the relative and absolute desert I was born into. I drew several flowers that night and hung them up on my wall.”
Originally of Indian descent, Zainah moved back to the United States for college to study psychology and medicine. She then moved to Rhode Island to pursue a master’s in public health. “I graduated from an Ivy league, and after hopping around research positions and internships in Rhode Island, I finally hit it big with a full time role as a quality improvement specialist in a community clinic in Boston.” She recollects. “I got a 2 bedroom apartment next door, all for myself.” She was fired exactly two months later.
Zainah recalls the moment with humor. “I remember walking home with my box of borrowed office supplies feeling equal parts panic and freedom. How would I pay rent? Who would I enjoy all this gorgeous summertime with?” Wryly, she notes that one of the most horrifying moments she anticipated throughout this ordeal was how she would break the news to her parents. “I didn’t want to tell them I’d failed,” Khan remarks. “But I had to, and I did.”
Gig work kept her busy while she hunted for a new position. “I hustled down with Airbnb and Lyft, picked up some ad hoc contract work with my old internship and applied for 6 months straight to jobs where I could prove my amorphous collection of skills during interviews and hide the shame of the growing gap in my resume. I would go through seven interview rounds at consulting firms and end up rejected because of my ‘lack of experience.’” Khan says she expanded her geographical boundaries and narrowed her search terms to the niche focus of her studies – eventually, this refined job-hunting methodology resulted in a position in Singapore as an HEOR consultant. “I’m still with the firm,” She notes, “Only I’ve transferred to California.”
Khan explains that her desire for studying public health originated with a need to further understand her childhood home. “I justified my masters’ as an ode to and a correction of my heritage victimhood to the world’s largest industrial disaster in the world–the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984.” Then, she pauses, considering her next story. “But if I’m being completely honest, I was mostly seeking a viable escape from the only other alternatives – med school or going back to Saudi arabia after four years of absolute independence.” Neither of those choices were options for Zainah. “Public health,” she explains, “was just barely an acceptable alternative, and only because I got into an Ivy League.”
She continues to muse, “I’m learning about intentionality now in my late 20s, but back then, my choices were based on my circumstances and ability to negotiate access and as many freedoms as possible. I’m relieved that public health just happened to be a very rewarding field, and that I intend to work in emerging healthcare landscapes where health awareness is fresh and the willingness to implement effective policy is resolute.”
And how does Khan reconcile her artistic mind with her more concrete and mathematically-driven field? Khan says, “They feed each other. One can’t work without the other. What’s the point of helping people stay alive if there isn’t anything to live for?” She adds, “Besides, art is not as abstract as people think it is–it has as many boundaries and regulations as mathematics and science. But that doesn’t mean it’s restrictive; it just means you have to be able to channel your creativity in the direction it needs to go, to create the task at hand. The ability to use their creativity in a productive and focused fashion is an artist’s second most important gift–the first, of course, is the art itself.”
Zainah doesn’t believe there was a lot of narrative leeway on her path to becoming a freelancer. The role fell into her lap, and she happened to feel strongly about it. The intertwining of art and her work in public health consulting has become Zainah’s story–a way of shifting the world around her into a better position. “It is almost out of a sense of desperation that I now seek to beautify my spaces in whatever fitting form or media,” she explains, whether it’s better understanding where, when, and how people thrive, or literally enhancing the aesthetics of her environment. Of her journey to this profession, she adds, “Where I come from, finding and following one’s passion is usually a luxury and an exercise in self actualization that is often unaffordable. I just got really lucky.”