By Courtney Conover – Khushi Patel’s life thus far can be characterized in a myriad of ways.
But easy isn’t one of them.
Born in Flint, Michigan, to parents who immigrated from India in the late ‘90s to make a living in the motel industry, Patel,19, grew up amid the unglamorous backdrop of her family’s around-the-clock business. Now, juxtapose that image with that of the sprawling, green landscape and stately, distinguished architecture found on an Ivy League college campus: Patel is currently a junior at Rhode Island’s prestigious Brown University, where she’s majoring in Public Health and International & Public Affairs.
To know Patel, a member of Wayne Memorial’s graduating class of 2021, is also to know that both experiences—and everything in between—have played an integral role in the woman she is today.
Walk inside a motel anywhere here in the U.S., and one is likely to find an Indian American family holding the reins. According to Smithsonian Magazine, at least half of America’s motels are owned by Indian Americans, and nearly 70 percent of these are owned by people from the same region of India—Gujarat, where the roots of Patel’s family also reside.
“My parents basically bounced around to a bunch of different states in America working as hotel housekeepers,” says Patel, who lived in Wayne for 15 years prior to heading off to college. “They lived in some of the most poverty-stricken cities in America—Montgomery,
Memphis, you name it. They were sort of everywhere.”
Eventually, Patel’s parents moved to Flint and then to Detroit before relocating to Wayne. Patel, along with her older brother, Shivan, 23, a Duke University graduate who is now applying to medical school, spent much of their youth in this city while their parents operated the Travel-Log Motel on Michigan Avenue, which they still own today.
“It was like a built-in business,” Patel says of the motel, which served as the family’s home as well.
And working in such an industry meant Khushi’s childhood looked a bit different than a conventional one—sleepovers and idle summers with Slip ‘N Slides were in short supply.
Patel’s youth may have lacked frivolity, but her parents’ livelihoods afforded her the opportunity to absorb invaluable life lessons, chief among them are when to take action and how to make decisions.
“I learned the ins and outs of how to run a motel,” explains Patel, who would take calls from her mother while she was in school if her mother experienced a difficult customer, for example. “It’s a 24/7 job. If the bell rings at 4 a.m., you’re up; you’re delivering toiletries to rooms; you’re constantly aware of your surroundings. [This job] came with a toolkit of cultural competence because you learn—one, How do you operate a motel that was my family’s sole source of income at the time?”
At age five, Patel assisted in the cleaning of hotel rooms. By age 19, she was proficient in checking customers in and out.
Watching her parents provided Patel with a constant reminder of just how demanding the motel industry is.
And Patel dreamt of something more. Much more.
“I remember, back when I was in elementary, being so keen on building a sustainable career—one outside of hotel management,” recalls Patel. “Whatever that necessarily entailed, I knew I didn’t want to do what I was doing at that age.”
Paving the Way
Patel attended Taft-Galloway Elementary and Franklin Middle School before moving on to Wayne Memorial High School where she honed her leadership skills by serving as president of the Student Council, captain of the Ethics Bowl, member of Rotary’s Interact Club, and co-founder of the Wayne-Westland Coalition, an organization which advocates for students by bringing forth concerns and proposals to the Wayne-Westland Community School District (WWCSD) School Board.
Having spent her entire K-12 tenure here in WWCSD, Patel isn’t shy about the credit she bestows upon the teachers who have guided and encouraged her throughout the years.
“They pushed me and urged me to consider different careers outside of hotel management,” says Patel, who found her teachers’ guidance especially impactful. “I want to [one day] be able to give back to those very teachers who would grant me an extension in high school because I had two hours of sleep the night before, dealing with a customer. Those teachers understood my background—and never shamed me for it, but rather made me proud of who I am.”
“My brother and I didn’t really grow up around various careers—my mom only finished eighth grade in India, and my dad finished high school in India. We’re both first generation. We just didn’t know all the different career paths that existed outside of the typical ones like medicine, engineering, etc.”
Patel, who applied early decision to Brown University, says choosing the university was simple.
“It ended up being my top choice,” says Patel. “I did a summer program when I was a sophomore in high school through The Joyce Ivy Foundation, and they gave me a full scholarship to spend three weeks at Brown taking a course…and it was transforming. I had never been to Rhode Island, I had never really traveled to the east coast before, and I learned what an elite university has to offer—and what I have to offer them.”
Founded in 1764, Brown is the seventh-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. It’s also home to the oldest applied mathematics program in the U.S., the oldest engineering program in the Ivy League, and the third-oldest medical program in New England.
When Patel does earn her Brown degree, she’ll be in fine company: As of March 2022, the university boasts an impressive roster of 27 Pulitzer Prize winners, twenty-one billionaires, and 11 Nobel Prize winners have been affiliated with Brown as alumni, faculty, or researchers.
All of this is not lost on Patel.
“When you’re at Brown, you’re surrounded by the top one percent, people who have immense wealth and privilege,” she says. “And not coming from that background has given me [so much]. It’s been difficult to navigate, but I think it’s been a wonderful experience–the duality of our worlds.”
Piece by piece, Patel’s future is coming into view.
And it looks mighty bright.
In November, Patel will travel to Chicago, IL, where, as a 2023 Voyager Scholarship recipient, she will join 99 other recipients at the scholarship’s annual summit. Created by former President of the United States Barack Obama and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, the Voyager Scholarship is a two-year program intended to support and prepare college juniors for careers in public service. It provides up to $50,000 in financial aid, a $10,000 summer voyage stipend to use anywhere in the world on a public service project, and a network of leaders in public service.
More than halfway through her undergraduate studies, Patel is preparing to forge her career path.
“I plan to focus on expanding basic health care services and K-12 education to immigrant communities,” says Patel. She goes on to say that her concentration impacts society in a variety of ways, from the development of vaccines and health education campaigns to feeding children healthy, nutritious meals at school.
A career in immigration law or global health may also appeal to Patel, too.
“I’ve always been keen on going back to India and helping girls and women in India–because that’s an identity that always resonated with me, as I am Indian American,” says Patel.
to the Fullest
In the meantime, Patel remains grounded by maintaining a work-life balance that includes exercising regularly—“My brother taught me how to weight lift last winter break,” she says, reading a lot of memoirs, binge-watching Netflix series, and hanging out with friends.
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Patel points to two individuals who paved the way to where she is today: Her parents.
“Every accomplishment, every dream that I get, I want them to be right there alongside me. I think coming from a first-generation background it’s so important because they didn’t get the experiences—and they grinded; they worked so hard to come to America and pave that path for me and my brother,” says Patel, who is slated to graduate in 2025.
“When I get that Ivy League degree, it’s to my mom and dad. I just want to make my parents proud.”
By all accounts, Patel has already succeeded.