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.