February 7, 2017

New Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur Recalls Turbulent Childhood

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The newly-appointed Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur shared an emotional account of his transformative experience with the multicultural center at University of Wisconsin during an address hosted by the Student Assembly and Cornell Minds Matter Tuesday.

For Pendakur, the center was the “water in the desert” that helped him overcome the trauma he experienced growing up in gang-ridden northern Chicago. The son of two Indian immigrants, Pendakur was subjected to “protracted, intense bullying” in his neighborhood, which he described as predominantly black.

“By virtue of being different — being Indian in an all black neighborhood — my sister and I felt like we had targets on our backs,” he said.

Having made it through middle school, Pendakur opted for a high school perched between his rough neighborhood and the wealthy suburbs to Chicago’s north, where he hoped to find friends of a background closer to his own.

However, those hopes were quickly quashed.

“I wasn’t black, and I wasn’t going to fit in with my home community, but I didn’t have the money and other signifiers of wealth to fit in with the wealthier white kids either,” Pendakur recounted.

The school “represented two worlds — the north side of Chicago and kids who bussed up on the Chicago Transit Authority, and students who came from the north shore of Chicago, a very wealthy, suburban area,” he said.

The bus ride to school was a daily terror, Pendakur said, calling the bus “a race riot in slow motion” and an “extremely violent space.”

By the end of high school, after years of bullying and peer-inflicted violence, Pendakur grew to resent and eventually reject his Indian heritage.

“I didn’t have language for it at the time, but what was happening was a process of internalizing extraordinary amounts of shame,” he said.

He refused to speak his parent’s native language, Kannada, at home, responding only in English. Today, he can no longer speak Kannada.

He also grew ashamed of his father, who he said is “not a burly, strong hyper-masculine man.” By the end of high school, Pendakur “wore a cloak of hyper-masculinity to keep safe.”

“I used a lot of homophobic and misogynistic language,” he said. “I believed the only way to stay safe was to be the strongest and the meanest person in the room.”

After high school, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but didn’t find a true community of friends until his fourth year, when he stumbled upon the school’s multicultural student center.

“I can still remember the feeling very viscerally of what it was like to go into the multicultural student center, drop my bag, take off my jacket and just kick it,” he said.

Following this recount, Pendakur pledged to represent similar student advocacy groups at Cornell as he steps into his new role as Dean of Students.

Specifically, Pendakur made a strong commitment to “deep investments in mental health issues and wellness issues” and encouraged students to “think of [him] as a megaphone” and reach out to him with their concerns.

While the political and social polarization and the invectives unleashed online have plagued the nation, Pendakur said Cornell could be different with the right efforts.

“We have a huge opportunity here to imagine something different, to try something different than what much of the country is doing,” he said. “This might be our crucible moment.”