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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.

Earlier this month, Pai addressed 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.”

Anjika Pai at Sather Gate with her mom, Samhita, left, and dad, Ganesh, right. (Photo courtesy of Anjika Pai)

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.

Pai, 3rd from the right, and the Caravan Travel & Style magazine team on a trip to Yosemite. From left to right, David Chen, Camille Roberts, Shrey Vasavada, Tushar Sondhi, Pai, Sophie Yang and Jordan Wong. (Photo courtesy of Anjika Pai)

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.

The Jamison Pais

Samhita Pai, far left, with Anisha, Anjika and Ganesh. (Photo courtesy of Anjika Pai)

Pai and her older sister, Anisha, were born to Ganesh and Samhita Pai, who immigrated to the U.S. from India in the early 1990s. Ganesh Pai is an engineer and Samhita worked in computer science before staying home to raise her daughters.

Pai remembers her hometown of Jamison, Pennsylvania as a sparsely populated patchwork of tidy suburbs and green spaces where most of the inhabitants were white. Her childhood was largely idyllic, with good public schools, supportive teachers and an orchestra and chemistry club. But it was also marked by casual racism.

“There were not many Indians where we lived, and that left me and my sister feeling like outsiders,” she says. “I was constantly having to prove myself.”

In 3rd grade, Pai came up with a social studies project to create news coverage linking the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. It was a resounding success.

In 9th grade, further testing her leadership skills, she lobbied her school principal to let students participate in a Day of Silence, an annual April event observed nationally to spread awareness of how LGBTQ-plus students are bullied and silenced. More than half of the student body participated, though some parents complained.

Her desire to protect Earth began while watching Animal Planet and BBC Planet Earth documentaries as a child and worrying about all the dying habitats around the globe.

“Everyone I knew wanted to be a doctor and save lives, and I just kept wondering, ‘Where are we going to put all these saved lives? How long is this planet going to be here?’” she recalls.

That said, she was never much of an outdoors person.

“I’m probably the only environmental sciences major who will not go camping,” says Pai, who is also not big on hiking.

Berkeley-bound

Pai’s last day as a senior at Bucks County High School South. (Photo courtesy of Anjika Pai)

When it came time to choose a college, she googled environmental science programs, and UC Berkeley’s rose to the top. In 10th grade, she flew to Berkeley. The weather was miserable, but when she saw the Rausser College of Natural Resources, she fell in love.

“Nothing beats having an entire college where everyone is working on making the environment safer, and that’s exactly where I wanted to be,” she says.

Her acceptance to UC Berkeley worried some in her Central Bucks High School South community who warned, “Don’t become a hippie.” She ignored them.

Once at UC Berkeley, Pai set out to find her focus in environmental sciences. A stint in the lab of Whendee Silver, a professor of ecosystem ecology and biochemistry, revealed that she wasn’t a good fit for lab work.

“The people at the Silver Lab were so incredible, but I just couldn’t sit and sift through soil for hours and hours,” she said. “I wanted to talk to people, to have conversations.”

Still, she was impressed by how the reports generated from the lab’s research positively impacted agriculture in California: “I realized I was much more interested in the policy and advocacy side of environmental science,” she says.

With a Type A personality, Pai is a doer, used to fending for herself, which she acknowledges can be lonely at times. So, she joined the Student Environmental Resource Center. She also befriended a student, David Chen, who came up with the idea for a travel magazine. They co-founded a student club that produces the publication, Caravan Travel & Style Magazine.

Meanwhile, Pai juggled, and loved, two work-study positions that helped her subsidize out-of-state tuition costs: a writer/social media assistant for the Rausser College of Natural Resources and an usher at Alfred Hertz Memorial Concert Hall.

Pandemic pivot

Pai and her best friend Hannah Young. (Photo courtesy of Anjika Pai)

When the campus closed in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and classes moved to Zoom, Pai — used to micromanaging and fixing problems — struggled with a sense of powerlessness in the face of a moving target.

But then she saw her peers mobilizing to address threats and needs caused by the fast-moving virus. Her best friend, Hannah Young, a UC Berkeley public health major, hosted information sessions about the international implications of the pandemic and pitched in at the local public health department. Other students set up a basic needs center.

Pai saw that they were all part of an ecosystem, each playing a different, but critical, role. Her turn to contribute her expertise to society would come.

She returned her focus to environmental law.

Last fall, when in-person classes resumed, Pai sought to reinvigorate her studies after more than a year of remote learning. For her music minor performance requirement, she took a chance on learning an altogether new instrument — in the campus’s exquisite gamelan ensemble.

And in his Javanese gamelan music class, Midiyanto took a risk, too.

On the first day of class, he asked students to raise their hand if they’d ever played a stringed instrument. Pai raised hers: “He said, ‘OK, I’ve never taught anyone rebab before, but I’ll try to teach you.’” She was a fast learner of the bowed instrument — one of the earliest known — that is played sitting cross-legged and held in a vertical position.

Pai at Hertz Concert Hall, where she has loved working as an usher. (Photo by Neil Freese/UC Berkeley)

She also finally settled on an honors thesis about the rights of nature doctrine as a tool for Indigenous sovereignty across the U.S. The project received grants from the Charles H. Percy Grant for Public Affairs Research and the Center for Research on Native American Issues.

Pai sees a future for herself in the field. “It would be so cool if I could continue working on rights of nature through environmental law,” she says.

While she still worries about humanity’s ever-expanding carbon footprint and all the natural habitats and species that are disappearing, Pai feels optimistic.

“Our generation has no other option but to be hopeful and committed to the public good,” she says matter-of-factly, lifting herself up off the grass, poised for action.

This story originally appeared in the University of California Newsroom.

Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley