Vijay Pendakur, who took over as the new Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students earlier this month, said he wanted to become a high school history teacher when he was in college.
“I grew up in a community where some of the smartest people I knew never got a shot at higher education,” Pendakur said. “In college, I thought about being a high school history teacher so that I could work with younger folks and empower them to succeed.”
Instead, he stumbled into student affairs through a series of chance encounters and decided to pursue a career in higher education because it fit strongly with his passions and strengths, according to Pendakur.
“I found that I loved the kinds of questions college students often ask of themselves and the world,” he said. “I am drawn to the excitement and self-discovery that often accompanies a rich undergraduate experience.”
Prior to assuming the position as dean of students on Jan. 3, Pendakur served in student affairs offices at University of Wisconsin-Madison, DePaul University and CSU Fullerton, according to his Linkedin profile.
Pendakur said he hopes his past experiences will allow him “to reimagine what our programming model looks like and pursue strategies that allow us to truly transform the student experience.”
“I have had the privilege of working for amazing leaders that have taught me that making change in higher education is about building relationships with lots of people, listening more than talking and having the humility to admit when I have made a mistake,” he said.
Pendakur said he experienced several volatile campus incidents when he was a student leader at his alma mater, UW-Madison, and hopes those events will help him understand the needs of students at Cornell.
“I can remember, intimately, my own feelings of hurt, anger, and urgency during these times,” he said. “I hope to stay connected to those memories as I work with students at Cornell, so that I can be empathetic to what they are going through and make real connections that allow us to forge a new path.”
In addition to these personal and professional experiences, Pendakur’s background in educational research has also shaped his vision for his time at Cornell.
“Staying abreast of the research as a scholar-practitioner gives me hope … hope that in the face of complex, long-standing challenges to creating inclusive environments, that we have a myriad of pathways to improvement,” he said.
Pendakur outlined three specific goals he hopes to accomplish while serving as the dean of students at Cornell.
First, he wants to enhance Cornell’s commitments to diversity and inclusion by building strong partnerships with students, staff and faculty.
“This university has a storied commitment to access, stemming right from its egalitarian founding mission, and I am inspired to continue building on this legacy,” he said.
Second, he wants to be an advocate for students within the administration. “As your Dean, I hope to be a liaison between students and various parts of the administration as we work together to transform the student experience,” he said.
Finally, he said he would like to help “create a cohesive, healthy and safe student experience at Cornell” by being a key member of Vice President Ryan Lombardi’s leadership team.
According to Pendakur, the biggest difficulty for him as dean will be the complex, turbulent climate surrounding issues of human dignity, inclusion, free speech, and educational equity. He said these problems would challenge him in his new role but also offer an opportunity to lead by example.
“I am concerned about how we, as a campus community, can be an example for the rest of the country in the way we model civic exchange,” he said. “I hope that we Cornellians can find our way towards a model of inclusion that allows for the dignity of all of our students to be honored.”
Aside from his duties and responsibilities, Pendakur said he is also looking forward to having fun with students and getting to know them around campus, emphasizing the importance of engaging with students, respectfully listening to other points of view and compromising when forming plans and committing to sets of actions.
“When mutual trust is deepened through personal connections, students can bring concerns to me directly, knowing who I am and the commitment I bring to the table,” he said. “That’s how we’ll be able to affect long-lasting, positive change on this campus.”