Stan Sonu ‘02, an Assistant Professor and Physician at Grady Memorial Hospital, talks about how Rabun Gap helped him make the decision to pursue medicine, shares some of his favorite memories, and gives advice to current Rabun Gap students.
Tell us what you have been up to since leaving Rabun Gap?
I graduated from Rabun Gap in 2002, coming up on 20 years! I attended Vanderbilt University for undergrad, and after graduating, I returned to Rabun Gap to teach 9th-grade science in tandem with Woody Malot. After one year, I was accepted to the Medical College of Georgia where I specialized in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. After completing my residency and fellowship, a desire to understand public health on a macro level led me to Northwestern where I completed a Master’s degree in Public Health. In 2018, I returned to Atlanta to be closer to family and began working at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. I married my wife in 2011 and we have two children.
How did Rabun Gap help to prepare you or influence your future goals?
So, side story, first. One of my math teachers, Andrew Jaffe, purchased an engraver to label everyone’s TI-83 calculators. He asked me what I wanted mine to say and I threw out Dr. Stan Sonu. He did it and I remember thinking, that looks nice. I should look into this!
On a more serious note, it wasn’t one specific class or teacher at Rabun Gap that pushed me into the medical field. Rabun Gap was a place where I could safely self-actualize. I could pursue and grow naturally into the things I was most passionate about. I knew I wanted to work with and help people, but wasn’t sure what that would look like. There were so many strong faculty members of character. The conversation was never about what I wanted to do, but rather what kind of impact did I want to have on the world - how did I want to change things for the better. Once in college, the medical field became a natural fit.
People often talk about diversity at Rabun Gap. Can you speak to how Rabun Gap’s diverse community impacted your experience?
Before starting at Rabun Gap, I was a shy, skinny kid who hadn’t hit puberty yet. One of the reasons I came to Rabun Gap was because my mom thought the smaller class sizes would help build my confidence, and she was absolutely right. As a minority coming in, I had some reservations, but those were squashed right away. I had so many opportunities to grow in confidence. One of the most beautiful things about Rabun Gap is that you live with people that are so different from you. I can’t overstate the value of that. It’s not just racially diverse, but socially diverse as well, without the air of elitism. Growing up during some of your most formative years in a place that is so diverse, it was natural to learn from different perspectives. It was so easy to deconstruct broad stereotypes that I went in with. I see that play out today in the issues that I care about as a physician and a citizen in this country. There are so many realities that you can not deny when it's happening to your roommate or friend you care about.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Rabun Gap?
As a six-year senior, I have so many memories. I played basketball and we were just not good. Rabun Gap basketball is good today, but we were not. I remember just winning a game was hard. My senior year, we were playing Tallulah Falls for homecoming. It was half time and we were down. My friend and team captain, Jamal Williams, looked at all of us in the locker room and said “we are not losing this game, we’re seniors, we’re not losing.” That fired us all up and we spent the second half chipping away at their lead. I hit a 3 with the clock winding down to tie the game. I remember bringing the ball down the court when two TFS players started to double team me. I found Jerrick Moton in the corner who turned, and made the game winning shot. We won by two and it was the greatest win we ever had.
I also loved the refreshing peace that comes with the beginning of each new school year. The hours spent hanging out in the dorm, on mall trips and just being on campus. Rabun Gap is one of the most beautiful places in Georgia and the soccer field is probably the most beautiful in the country. There’s nothing like it.
Is there a specific faculty member, coach, or dorm parent who had a particular important impact on you?
Oh man, so many! Bob Brigham and his jokes, the Hennings, David Landis, David Holtsclaw, Woody Malot, Doc Truslow, Ivy Stiles, Jason Grove, Constance Walton, the Cooks, and of course, Jeff Reynolds. From a spiritual formation perspective, his approach was exactly what I needed.
Funny story! When I was 15, I was desperate to get my learner’s permit. As a boarding student, I couldn’t make it work with my parents, so Mark Henning drove me. No one paid him extra to do that, he just did it out of the goodness of his heart. Those unseen moments leave a big imprint on you.
What advice do you have for current Rabun Gap students that you wish someone told you during your time at school?
Don’t take for granted the people around you. There is a huge opportunity to be intentional with your relationships. Everyone there has a unique story. Be intentional about asking questions and getting to know people. It takes effort, but we have so much to learn from each other. When I was a student, I was so focused on sports and school, I missed out on some real opportunities to get to know people and continue the work of inclusion.
If you want a second piece of advice, college is going to be different from high school. It will take time to adjust and that is okay. Nothing is wrong with you, it just takes time. Rabun Gap does an excellent job at making its students feel seen and known. Not every institution is going to be like that.
What are your hopes for Rabun Gap in the next 10-20 years?
I’m not someone who insists on keeping tradition. Change is good if it's needed. What I would love to see is Rabun Gap continuing to be known as a place where students can succeed because they are well cared for. As a school, it can send students to the best colleges and universities and that is great, but the how is everything. Rabun Gap has such strengths in caring for its students. I love hearing about how well the sports teams are doing and what new heights the art program is reaching, but as alumni, we know that is not what makes Rabun Gap so special. What makes Rabun Gap so special is all of the unseen moments. The moments when a high school history teacher helps you get your learner’s permit. Moments that allow students to safely grow and learn that they can overcome and do hard things. I’ve spent years researching childhood trauma and a person’s ability to overcome obstacles. I wish every kid had what Rabun Gap gave me.