Halfway through Anjika Pai’s junior year of high school, Donald Trump began his U.S. presidency. As one of the few Indian Americans in the pastoral community of Jamison, Pennsylvania, Pai braced herself for an onslaught of xenophobia.
“People’s bigotry around that time was out on full display, and there was nothing I could do to make them like me because of the way I look, as a brown person,” she recalls.
“At the same time, it was weirdly freeing, because I felt like, ‘I don’t need to try and please people who are never going to like me,’” Pai adds. “’I’m just going to do what I need to do to further my passions and make my dreams come true.’”
And that’s exactly what she did.
Pai, 21, an environmental sciences major and music minor with a 4.0 GPA, is this year’s winner of the University Medal, UC Berkeley’s highest honor for a graduating senior. The prize comes with $2,500.
This Saturday, May 14, Pai will address thousands of her peers at a campuswide commencement ceremony at California Memorial Stadium. In the fall, she is headed to Northeastern University in Boston to study environmental law on a full-tuition graduate scholarship.
From lobbying for greater diversity in STEM fields to spotlighting overlooked female composers like Ethel Smyth, to performing Indonesian gamelan music, Pai is driven by a unique blend of Hindu spiritualism, Berkeley utopianism and East Coast grit.
Her mentors at UC Berkeley include Alastair Iles, associate professor of environmental studies; music lecturer Robert Yamasato; musician/composer Midiyanto Midiyanto, who taught Pai to play the rebab, a stringed instrument used in Indonesian gamelan music; and ethnomusicologist/composer John-Carlos Perea, who encouraged Pai to dig into her Konkani ancestry.
‘Intrepid and entrepreneurial’
“Anjika represents the very best of UC Berkeley, in all its dimensions from intellectual growth to social justice and public service to the pursuit of artistic passions,” Iles wrote in his glowing letter recommending Pai for the University Medal.
“She is among the most well-rounded, intrepid, and entrepreneurial of all the undergraduates that I have had the privilege to teach,” he continued. “As an Indian American, she brings her heritage into her thinking about social justice and race issues.”
Pai was riding on BART when she got the call from Prizes & Honors Program committee chair Laura Sterponi, a professor of language and literacy. The train was so loud that Pai had to hop off and call Sterponi back.
“The entire time, I was thinking, ‘No way. They probably just want more information from me,’” Pai recalls. “Then, when she said, ‘Congratulations!’ I knew it was happening. It still feels surreal.”
Among other achievements, Pai cofounded the award-winning website STEM Redefined, with the support of a Clinton Global Initiative University program for social impact startups. She is also a recipient of a Cal Alumni Association Leadership scholarship.
She was a policy research intern for the California-China Climate Institute, taught a DeCal class highlighting female composers, and engaged staff at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority in a racial equity plan — all while earning straight A’s.
In addition to the rebab, Pai plays the piano and viola. She speaks proficient Spanish and Konkani, the official language of India’s western coastal state of Goa. Dog training, sidewalk art and baking are among her interests.
“I’ve gotten involved in so many different things because Berkeley lets you explore whatever you want to explore,” she says, sitting recently on a grassy verge outside the campus’s Genetics and Plant Biology building.
Rights of Nature
Her honors thesis is on rights of nature laws as they pertain to Indigenous people in the United States. For it, Pai has begun to interview tribal members about their relationship to the natural resources they are trying to preserve.
The Rights of Nature movement seeks to give legal “personhood” to such natural resources as rivers, forests and wild rice fields. It has long been recognized by Indigenous communities and is part of tribal law, though rarely enacted.
Pai feels a strong affinity for the issue, though not in the same way as U.S. Indigenous groups who have a direct stake in the implementation of rights of nature.
Her family’s ancestors are the Konkani people, Hindus who inhabited India’s western coastal state of Goa before it was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s and by the British in the 1800s and 1900s.
Her grandfather told her that, long ago, the Konkani people resided in a forest by a river. Legend goes that when a famine struck and the river dried up, the goddess Saraswati Devi allowed the Konkani people to eat fish from the ocean, so long as they returned some to the ocean.
“And so, we kind of set up sustainable fishing,” she says.
She credits her close-knit family for keeping her grounded and entertained while she chases her dreams: “I don’t think there’s another set of people in the world who could make me laugh so much,” Pai says.