Take Five with Sandhya Nankani ’96, SIPA’97



Sandhya Nankani ’96 is the founder of Literary Safari, which has been producing and creating children’s educational media since 2008. In 2015 she started KIDMAP (Kids’ Inclusive and Diverse Media Action Project), an interdisciplinary group that develops toolkits for children’s media producers, in an effort to make products that are more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived at Columbia from a rather non-diverse suburban high school in New Jersey, a devotee of Thoreau, Emerson and Gandhi, not sure about what I wanted to study, be or do with my life, and rather introverted. All I knew was that New York City was the place for me and that the diverse and multicultural community at Columbia felt like it would be the right home for me to engage with the world and to discover who I was. At the beginning of the year, I was shy and barely spoke up in my Core classes; I remember vividly how, over the course of my first year, the professors, students, knowledge and the opportunities that I was exposed to opened me up and how I slowly begin to express myself and explore the concept of being a leader.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

There are some places that make an indelible imprint in your life memory. For me, Carman Hall, eighth floor, is one of those places. My roommate, Michele Rosenbaum ’96, was a committed pre-med student and our suite was at the end of the hall, next to the TV lounge (does that even exist these days?!) so it was a very social place, with our doors always open and people going in and out. I loved the regular visits from Arnold Kim ’96, who always brought in a bag of Sun Chips to munch on, and I took comfort in knowing that I could always go out to the lounge and shoot the breeze with Angel Rivera ’96, my first friend from Texas, or hop across the hall to the single room of Felicity Savage ’00, who at 17 was already a published sci-fi author and from whom I bought my first Apple computer and with whom I played hooky from class to take a trip to Chinatown for dim sum one Wednesday afternoon. A lot of those people I’m still in touch with, all these years later, because the community we shared was like family. This experience taught me how many different people can come together and live side-by-side despite their different backgrounds and experiences — something I still hold dear as I think about what makes communities and neighborhoods thrive and succeed.

What class do you most remember and why?

I have very strong memories of all my Core Curriculum courses, but in particular my freshman-year Music Humanities course, which was one that I only could have taken as a Columbia College student. As a person of color whose parents immigrated to the United States in the mid-’80s, it was my first time being exposed to this body of Western art and music (even though my father always listened to classical music). It was like a whole new world opened up to me, because I had this chance to dig into these art forms and figure out how they connected to me. I remember attending an Indian classical music concert at Miller Theatre and writing a paper about raga and comparing it to jazz; it was a very powerful moment for me because through this one assignment, I was beginning this profound journey of making sense of what it means to be a bifurcated American and to really see the world through multiple lenses.

Another class that I remember was Ayesha Jalal’s course on the history of modern South Asia, which gave me a new perspective on not just the history of India’s partition, but also made me aware of the power nationalism, communalism and identity politics can have on a nation state (something that is relevant in our current climate) — and actually converted me into a history major.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The SIPA library. I used to love walking across the Amsterdam Avenue bridge to this building that was full of older, very international-looking people. It felt like a cross between an airport and the United Nations, and it was my favorite place to read and study because there, in the basement library, were newspapers in so many different languages, from all over the world. As someone who grew up on three continents, speaking four languages, this was a space that inspired me. I applied to the CC/SIPA five-year joint program and pursued a master’s of international affairs. And throughout my career, global issues and multicultural matters have always woven into the work that I do.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

One of the challenges I think our nation is facing today is our echo chamber lifestyle, and I believe that college is a place where we have more opportunities than any other time in our lives to consciously break down barriers and step outside of our comfort zones. If I were redoing my college experience, I think I would have gone outside my comfort zone much more. I would join more clubs and organizations that were outside of my social echo chamber — I was a founding member of the Hindu Students Organization and one of the editors of the magazine of Club Zamana. Both of those were South Asian student groups, something I’d never had access to before coming to Columbia, so my enthusiasm for them makes sense. But I would also have expanded my social network so that it included more ideas and types of people that I didn’t already identify with and had me writing, performing and creating for audiences or groups that I didn’t necessarily feel connected to already. I was a senior during the ethnic studies sit-ins and, although I attended several of the demonstrations and was part of the group that camped out in Hamilton Hall, I was too worried about the repercussions and my parents’ reaction to be a full-out activist. In hindsight, I would not have worried about the impact on my transcript! On the academic front, as someone whose self-perceived strength was the literary arts, I would have taken more science and mathematics courses, even if it had meant some failing grades. One of the things that I have learned in the 20 years since graduating is how much more flexible and capable I am of doing things that I think I cannot do — and that failure can be a stepping stone to the next big thing in your life.