Cornell Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur spoke to students and faculty about his personal experiences at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue Thursday.
Pendakur stressed that his primary goal as dean is to help transmit student voices to the administration.
“I hope to have one of my most valuable contributions to the Cornell community be my personhood and the kinds of relationships and conversations and good times and hard times we have together,” he said. “That’s what it means to be a community.”
Pendakur highlighted moments in his life when he felt isolated and misunderstood, and discussed the importance of relationships between students and administrators.
“I really want to build authentic relationships with students and to put myself in spaces where they feel comfortable about sharing honestly about what’s happening to them,” he said.
He recalled moving to the north side of Chicago as “challenging” and “transformative,” because he and his sister experienced harassment and bullying as minorities in their community.
Even after moving out of Chicago, Pendakur said he continued to face microaggressions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, he said he was challenged to adjust to a predominantly white, rural student population.
Pendakur also struggled to make friends and used hypermasculinity as a coping mechanism to face his fears.
“As a man, I did not talk with anybody about how I really felt,” he said. “I was deeply scarred and troubled inside but the outside was just like chip on my shoulder all the time because that was the learned behavior for me to stay safe.”
Pendakur said his academic pursuits in American history, Africana studies and gender studies helped him contextualize his struggles. While he continued to struggle socially, he found a mentor through a job at the campus multicultural center, which eventually led him to find a vocation in social justice and diversity education.
During his career he received psychotherapeutic help for seven years — a decision he made after a low point in his late 20’s — and found that he was able to “rewrite [his] history.”
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “For me, the psychotherapeutic process allowed me to actually go back and turn the mirror inward.”
At Cornell, Pendakur said he will seek more opportunities for face time with students to hear their various perspectives.
Pendakur stressed that one of his primary goals as dean is to listen and build relationships with students through the facilitation of peaceful and respectful dialogue.
“I will listen to the empathy and compassion and pain they’re feeling,” he said. “It doesn’t fix the problem but it takes the threat level down and allows us to get to a place where we can speak and be heard and in a way that’s productive.”
This forum marks the beginning of a series of speaking events that Pendakur hopes to focus on during his first year as dean.