Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Elizabeth Jackson
I began interviewing Aanand Shah, CC ‘20, with what I thought was an easy question: “Where are you from originally?” He paused and explained that he grew up in Davidson, North Carolina, then attended high school in Okinawa, Japan after his mother’s service with the U.S. Air Force brought them there. His family then moved to Mississippi, before finally landing near D.C. “I don’t really have a ‘where I’m from,’” he concluded.
This acceptance of perpetual motion (“comfortable in the uncomfortable,” as he describes himself) fits well with Shah’s intended career path. He’s a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and after graduating, he’ll train for four months in Georgia, before moving to Kansas to join the Signal Corps, the army’s communications branch.
Initially, Shah was disappointed with this assignment—he wanted to work as a Cyber officer and go farther afield. But Shah keenly understands the importance of working toward a purpose beyond his own goals. Almost immediately after expressing disappointment, he acknowledged, “I volunteered to serve. I can’t have so many strings attached.” He is resolved, therefore, to “bloom where [he’s] planted.”
Illustration by Sahra Denner
Although he joined the ROTC primarily to be part of a “bigger purpose,” Shah doesn’t necessarily think that joining the military is the best way to contribute overall. Rather, he views his time in the army partly as an opportunity to further develop leadership skills that will prepare him to run for public office. He’d eventually like to run for local office, which would allow him to see the tangible outcome of his work more readily than he would in national politics.
Commitment to serving others before oneself is also a prominent component of Shah’s Jain faith. Another central tenet of Jainism is nonviolence, a practice seemingly incompatible with a military career. But Shah reconciles his faith with his role in the military through an understanding that Jainism, beyond espousing nonviolence, is about representing a “net positive on the world.” As a military leader, Shah will have the opportunity to “help guide other people towards being better,” whether that means teaching new recruits or aiding others abroad. Effecting a positive change in this context, Shah says, involves using one’s leadership position to enable others to better the world.
Shah has also found community in other groups on campus, including Raas, Columbia’s Gujarati folk dance team. While he acknowledges his brotherhood with fellow ROTC members as somewhat “forged in the fire,” in Raas he’s found a lighthearted but no less deep connection through dance. He’s also passionate about his major: Computer Science, which he stumbled upon after taking Java as a sophomore. He loves CS in part because “you can be creative and see the tangible outcome of your work”—the same idea behind his ambition to run for office.
Staying busy by creating tangible products is predictably part of what’s keeping Shah happy while he’s practicing social isolation; he was in the process of building and painting a bench on the day I checked in with him. While he regrets missing out on second-semester senior events and traditions, he was generally upbeat and confident in the bonds that he’s formed over years at Columbia.“It’s not over,” he said. “…nobody’s gone forever.” Even amidst the present uncertainty, Shah displays a level-headed perspective, finding pleasure and purpose in sticking to a routine, comfortable with adapting to the global situation as it changes, though his short-term plans of going to Georgia in June and then on to Kansas remain in place for now.
Ironically, Shah’s selflessness and adaptability drive his desire to lead. He is eager for the opportunity to act for the benefit of others, and to instill compassion in those he leads.