Class of ’22: Valedictorian’s love for literature fuels dental dreams

Mehar Soni says her happy place is playing the piano in the St. Ignatius Chapel

To mark the graduation of the Class of 2022, Marketing & Communications is profiling several students who were nominated by staff and faculty for their contributions to the University and their potential to make a difference after graduation. For more information about 2022 commencement exercises, please click here.

When Mehar Soni gives her valedictorian speech at University of Detroit Mercy’s 2022 commencement ceremony May 14, she’ll look into the crowd, reflect on her three years at the University and acknowledge all the people who have impacted her.

One of those people is her grandmother.

Soni, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a minor in Literature, grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories and being read to. Quality time with her grandmother as a child had a big impact on the Detroit Mercy valedictorian’s life, helping her develop a love for literature.

“It was a way for me to connect with her and her stories,” Soni said. “She would tell me about India, she would tell me about how she immigrated here and how it was so difficult to mesh into society. Being a child and just spending time with your grandparents through stories and books was very valuable to me. I was always drawn to listening and reading because of that reason.”

Soni came to Detroit Mercy to follow her dream of becoming a dentist as part of the 7-Year Dental program. But literature first sparked the Hamilton, Ontario, native’s interest in science and medicine at an early age.

Mehar Soni as a young child holds hands with her grandmother
Soni was influenced by her grandmother who helped her develop a love for literature.

Soni says she was about 6 years old when she grabbed an interactive biology book off the lowest shelf at her library. Fascinated, she renewed the book, which detailed the human body, “so many times.” Volunteering at the cancer hospital where her grandmother was a patient, as well as conversations with her dentist, helped solidify dentistry as Soni’s medical path.

“I shadowed and realized dentistry had the personal element of connecting with patients,” she said. “I don’t have to deal with severe illness and I can really be involved with patients’ lives. I can also work with my hands to create art and do good.”

Soni chose to attend Detroit Mercy for a variety of reasons. Her dentist, a graduate of the University, first recommended its 7Year Dental programbut what set Detroit Mercy apart was the institution’s values and community. Soni enjoyed developing relationships with College of Engineering & Science Assistant Dean for Academics and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Elizabeth Roberts-Kirchhoff, as well as the Chair and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Matthew Mio while touring the McNichols Campus.

“I already felt like I had belonged, even though I was in high school,” Soni said. “I felt like this is such a natural place for me to go, I already feel like a member of the community.”

Although it took some time for Soni to find her place on the McNichols Campus, she feels she was able to grow at the University and became quite involved as her undergraduate career progressed. Her roles included serving as the Chemistry Club’s vice president of speakers and tours, a content editor for the student arts journal [sic] and working as an ambassador for the 7-Year Dental program. She also did research with Detroit Mercy faculty.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned at Detroit Mercy is the power of community and family,” Soni reflected. “College isn’t all about getting good grades – that’s the mistake I was making in my first year. I thought I could just come, get As and go back home. But that’s not what it’s about, that’s not what this University is about. They want you to be involved on campus, to meet people, faculty, find mentors and friends.”

It was also important for Soni to give back to others through volunteering, a trait instilled in her at an early age by her grandmother.

“We come from a community where not a lot of people had a lot of opportunities,” Soni said. “Being a person of color and being in a new country, my parents really had to struggle to get everything that they had. My grandmother always said ‘you have the privilege of going to a wonderful institution, you should always incorporate giving back in every stage of your life.’” 

Creative outlets led to memorable experiences for Soni at Detroit Mercy. This spring, she won the annual Dudley Randall poetry contest with her submission “The Crown Jewel,” a personal poem she says is about her family and background. The piano in the University’s St. Ignatius Chapel also brought great joy to Soni, who started playing when she was 3.

“I’ve spent so many hours playing it between the services that are there,” she said. “The room is just beautiful. The stained-glass windows and the light coming into the room, it’s kind of my happy place.”

The hard work and discipline it took for Soni to play the piano at a high level is something she uses in all areas of her life.

“I couldn’t immediately play something perfectly; it took hours and hours of dedication, questioning and listening to other people play the song,” Soni said. “Some people have a natural talent for music, but personally, I don’t. It took a lot of effort to get to where I am today. And that has carried into every aspect of my life. When I go to school, I don’t just go and take notes. I take detailed notes, I ask questions, I go to office hours. I question everything I learn because of music.”

The next step in Soni’s educational career is dental school, which she will start this fall at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she is eager to explore a passion she discovered at Detroit Mercy through literature: narrative medicine. Soni worked with Associate Professor of English Rosemary Weatherston, who teaches a narrative medicine course at the University, to research chemistry in narrative medicine.

“It involves understanding the stories of illness instead of just the medical symptoms and scientific aspect,” Soni said. “Really understanding that illness is a narrative; it’s a very big part of who you are.”

Soni fulfilled a longtime dream by becoming Detroit Mercy’s valedictorian. Despite being sick with COVID during the application process, she earned the coveted distinction, following in the footsteps of her friend Nurzahan Rahman, who was the University’s valedictorian last year.

When Soni steps on the Calihan Hall stage to give her speech on Saturday, she’ll reflect on her three years at Detroit Mercy and deliver messages of hope for her fellow Titans. She’ll talk about the friends, mentors, faculty and alumni who have influenced her, as well as how becoming involved on the McNichols Campus impacted her life.

More importantly, Soni will thank her family, who accompanied her along her journey from its start.

“My family was just really proud, because they just didn’t expect something like this to happen,” Soni said. “I’m the oldest child in my family, my dad never had these kinds of opportunities that I’ve had. He’s just really proud that I could make the best of them. It’s just unreal. My grandma’s the most proud, though.

“That pride of being able to see my family in the crowd and talk about them in a speech and give my thanks to them, it’s powerful.”

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