Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Eden Rosenbloom
When I met with Priya Pai, CC ‘20, after her office hours for User Interface Design, for which she is a TA, her sincere “How are you?” prompted an outpouring of my first-year worries and existential crises of the week. “Yeah, that never stops,” she replied between giggles. Her tone revealed no trace of the I’m-a-senior-and-your-petty-anxieties-are-not-of-concern-to-me attitude I confront far too often. By the time we settled into our seats in the Dodge Joe, I trusted her instantly; this Texas native has mastered the art of sincerity.
As a Computer Science and English double-major, Pai has never been one to sacrifice passion in favor of cultivating a marketable identity. “I think only being in a single field ends up being a really limited way to see the world,” she insisted, noting my mixed expression of disbelief and fascination. “It shouldn’t be something so radical!” She jumped seamlessly from a discussion about ethical data to her passion for Danzy Senna’s New People. By the time she started discussing her current research for the History Department, it became clear that her array of interests were not mere fodder for future dinner conversations, but manifestations of her genuine curiosity and desire to better herself.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
When I confessed to Pai that I knew her as the former Editor-in-Chief of Quarto, the poetry focused campus literary magazine, her face immediately blossomed into a grin. “Quarto has been one of the biggest things of college, it’s just been so—life-changing,” she gushed. “It’s so grounding to have a few hours each week to talk about art and writing, especially art and writing done by my peers.” Now the web editor, she described her admiration for the magazine’s many contributors and the inspiration she continually draws from Columbia students. “It’s such an empathetic community, and it’s so cool that we get to publish their work and lift them up.”
Beyond Quarto, Pai has been involved in the South Asian Feminism(s) Alliance, and she hopes to fuse her commitment to social justice activism with computer science in the future. During a research internship at the ACLU last summer, she did so by culling statistics from FBI databases for lawyers to use during court cases, “It was literally like, ‘here’s the problem, here’s the proof, we’re going to court,’” she recounted. “Having my research actually affect the outcomes of cases was just wild to me.”
Pai remains uncertain of what awaits after graduation, but even her indecision is somehow confident and composed. “I’m a senior about to graduate, and I still have no idea what I’m doing,” she said, laughing. “I’ve been applying to a ton of jobs, but also thinking about grad school, but also considering an MFA!” Her attitude is clearly more than a mere tactic to mask any bubbling insecurities; she seems instead to trust that the process—whatever that is—will work out for her.
The effortlessly poised Pai we know today is a far cry from the first-year who arrived on campus nearly four years ago. “I thought that I needed to cater to expectations—and not even other people’s expectations, but my own,” she remembered. “It was only when I released myself from judgment that I was able to be completely open.” Then came the opportunities and experiences that have shaped her undergrad years. Pai’s reminiscences were not as sentimental as they were direct and comforting, full of grace.