For Serena Shah ’13, Faithfulness, Fun, and Philanthropy Consume College Life

By Al Daniel

Serena Shah ’13 and her Sigma Kappa sisters at Elon University walked in appearance only on Saturday, September 14. Compared to their other marquee dates, this occasion compels everyone to hit the ground running on their almanac.

In Shah’s words, the Alamance County Walk to End Alzheimer’s is “My sorority’s largest philanthropy event of the year.” A Sigma Kappa member since the spring of 2018, and now its assistant to the Vice President of Philanthropic Services, she is inevitably aiming high for an encore to her first go-round.

The Elon chapter is coming off nearly $30,000 in funds from the 2018 walk. Four individual or joint supporters have submitted $331 in Shah’s name alone toward her follow-up. She is one of 74 Sigma Kappa representatives on the event’s top participant list, and at publication time, the team had raised $20,408.83, more two-thirds of their goal.

The walkers strolling two miles around Burlington’s Historic Train Depot followed a four-tier color code based on whether one is afflicted by Alzheimer’s themselves, has lost a loved one to the condition, has a living loved one diagnosed, or is supporting the cause out of pure empathy. Shah sported orange, signaling her membership in the fourth category.

Alzheimer’s and gerontology comprise the charitable specialty of Elon’s Sigma Kappa chapter, and Shah was touched by her first in-person interaction with those dealing with dementia’s most common variant.

“I have been lucky to not have a family member personally impacted by Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “However, through my volunteer service at a local memory-care facility in Burlington, I have seen firsthand how devastating this disease is.”

Shah arrived at Elon with a built-in impulse to help others. Despite her previous lack of direct exposure to her sorority’s specialty, a mix of lifelong values and poignant brushes with other deadly conditions fuel her philanthropy beyond Sigma Kappa’s itinerary.

She credits her mother, former MCS Director of Communications Deb Shah, with instilling those values. At a young age, among other causes around Durham and their hometown of Chapel Hill, Serena and her brother Dhillon would join Deb in delivering Valentine’s Day roses and cards to local home-ridden elders.

“Initially, I wasn’t so excited to do this,” Shah admits. “But when I saw what joy it brought to their faces, I was hooked! This is why I spend time each month at the memory-care facility in Burlington. The residents often don’t remember me from time to time, but I enjoy playing games with them and hearing their stories.”

Shah’s hunt for new points of view and perpetual pursuit of her passions transcend trying times and lighter moments for herself and those she interacts with. When she moved on from MCS to East Chapel Hill High School, she participated in the Social Justice Academy.

At Elon — where she reached the freshman honors sorority, then the School of Communications honors society, and now aims to match that feat after switching her major to political science — she has tapped into every enticing opportunity to build on her foundation for leadership skills she set at her first school.

Besides her high-ranking philanthropy post at Sigma Kappa, she is president of Elon’s volleyball team and a teacher’s assistant. She spent the last weekend of August serving as an orientation leader, an easy choice to give back to a program that benefited her two years prior.

“The mixed-age classrooms at MCS encouraged me to help the younger students,” she said. I particularly loved being the elder in the room and helping the younger ones with a challenging work or in tying their shoes.”

Shah similarly cites MCS’s comprehensive, concrete lessons on diversity — which included guests and celebrations of everything from Chinese New Year to Jewish and Hindu holidays — as her springboard for an interest in international affairs, which her family’s mixed roots and travels have also fostered.

This past spring semester, she sought one of Elon’s less known, less glorified study-aboard option. “I wanted to go to a place that pushed me out of my comfort zone and allow me to learn about a place that I didn’t know much about,” she said.

Shah chose Malawi, a small southeast African republic with a majority-agriculture economy and an ongoing uphill climb from widespread poverty.

“While abroad,” she said, “I worked with young students in a village school, helping them practice their English in preparation for an exam that would decide whether they would continue their education or move into a trade profession.

“It was very impactful for me to see the conditions in which they lived and how happy they were despite having little compared to most Americans.”

A more personal experience has followed Shah from the home to the campus. Her aunt Suzie is a two-time breast cancer survivor. At her grandmother’s behest, her family has constituted Suzie’s Soldiers at the Chapel Hill edition of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life since before her earliest memory.

Elon’s Sigma Kappa has since added the Relay for Life to its own almanac. In between, during former MCS head of school Dave Carman’s battle with cancer, Serena and Dhillon led a bake sale that yielded $2,000 in funds.

Sadly, Dhillon spent his life contending with his own health struggles. He attended MCS for 10 years — including a stop in Primary with Kathy McHugh, who had previously guided Serena in the mid-2000s and Dhillon and Serena’s uncle in the early 1980s — before his congenital heart defect required care at multiple specialized treatment centers out of state. He succumbed to the condition’s complications in July 2015.

Shah is pictured alongside her brother in the profile photo of the Dhillon’s Heart Journey Facebook page, which has more than 1,000 fans. And at a ceremony celebrating Dhillon’s life, the worst of times for her family brought out the best qualities of her first school, which she had attended for 11 years.

“I decided to sing and play ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ on the ukulele,” she recalled. “I was planning on doing this with just my cousins, but a handful of my MCS friends reached out and wanted to play with me even though we hadn’t seen each other in a while. That was a really special moment for me because they all came together to support me in honoring my brother.”

A fellow MCS family, led by former board member Jane Mack, joined forces with the Shahs in commemorating loved ones. Jane and Brian Mack’s nephew, Blair, sustained fatal head trauma in a skiing accident, and an annual a cappella festival honors his memory. There, in addition to a University of Virginia grant named after Blair, one can give to the Dhillon Jordan Shah Innovation Fund for Congenital Heart Disease.

Also known as Dhillon’s Gift, and founded by Serena’s grandmother Bev Foster, the fund supports UNC Health Care, the University of Michigan Health System, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, all of whom treated Dhillon.

Last year’s A Cappella in the Park fetched $7,000 for Dhillon’s Gift. The next edition will take place October 12, four weeks after the Alamance County Walk to End Alzheimer’s, on Hayworth Drive in the Chapel Hill neighborhood of Hundred Oaks. If it is anything like its predecessors, one can expect to see Shah manning the Donate Life table.

“We welcome the MCS community to attend!” she said.