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Who is Shruti Kumar Who Boldly Stood Up for Pro-Palestine Student Protesters in Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Who is Shruti Kumar Who Boldly Stood Up for Pro-Palestine Student Protesters in Her Harvard Commencement Speech

  • Her off-script criticism of the university administration’s punishment of students and suppression of free speech won the Indian American from Nebraska a standing ovation.

Shruti Kumar has always been an over achiever. Whether it’s health inequities and public health, yoga or Indian classical dance or poetry. This week, the Indian American from Nebraska became known for another cause that’s dear to her heart — activism. At her graduation speech on May 22, she went off script and blasted the prestigious university for its treatment of pro-Palestine student protesters. 

The senior, who was chosen to deliver the English address, sharply reprimanded the university leaders during her time at the podium. She drew out a piece of paper containing off-script remarks hidden up the sleeve of her crimson gown. “As I stand here today, I must take a moment to recognize my peers – the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 that will not graduate today,” she said, expressing anger at the university’s decision to bar 13 seniors from the ceremony in the wake of campus demonstrations over the war in Gaza. 

According to the Harvard Gazette, her original speech was titled “The Power of Not Knowing,” which “encouraging “encouraged students to embrace uncertainty as they transition on from school.” But instead, her remarks mostly focused on Harvard’s punishment of protesting students and overall censorship. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus,” she said. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken,” she added. ““Harvard, do you hear us,” she asked. 

Her speech was met with a standing ovation.

Kumar was one of three students who won the honor to speak at graduation through an annual contest hosted by the university. In a Harvard Gazette feature on her and the other winners, she previewed a very different message that was more anchored in the personal than the political. “She spoke of embracing change in the context of her own decision to switch from a pre-med career track to a path in public health, “ the publication said. “At the end of the day, I think we owe it to ourselves to listen to that voice inside that tells us, ‘Oh, this is what I’m passionate about.’”

The Power of Not Knowing

The transcript of her original speech — “The Power of Not Knowing” — published in Harvard Magazine includes her background “growing up in the Great Plains of Nebraska alongside cattle ranches and cornfields.” As the eldest daughter of South Asian immigrants, she was the first in her family to go to college in the U.S. “There was a lot I didn’t know,” the speech read. When it came time, I asked my parents how to apply to colleges. They too said, “I don’t know.”

These words — I don’t know — used to make her “feel powerless,” she said. “Like there was no answer, and therefore, no way. As if I was admitting defeat.” But, from Nebraska to Harvard,” I found myself redefining this feeling of not knowing. I discovered a newfound power in how much I didn’t know,” she continued. 

She told the Harvard Crimson that she was “confident her message would resonate with the Class of 2024, which started their first year amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.” They had “to grapple with not knowing what was going to happen in the next few years of our college experience,” she said. “We have gone through College with this chaos, and we have developed a strength to deal with uncertainty, and that’s what makes us powerful.”

The original speech had also included remarks on the turmoil over Gaza. ”Our senior year on campus has been marked by enormous uncertainty,” she said. “In the fall, my name and identity alongside other black and brown students at Harvard was publically targeted. For many of us, students of color, doxxing left our jobs uncertain, our safety uncertain, our well-being uncertain,” she went on. “Now, we are in a moment of intense division and disagreement in our community over the events in Gaza. I see pain, uncertainty, and unrest across campus. It’s now, in a moment like this, that the power of “not knowing” becomes critical.”

Passion for Public Health

Kumar came to Harvard as a pre-med student. But after taking a History of Science class on health disparities in the U.S., she had “a change of heart,” she told the Harvard Crimson. “I fell in love with that class,” and “I realized that history of science was what I really wanted to study to find ways to address the world’s biggest health problems,” she said.  She graduated with double major in history of science and economics with a minor in human evolutionary biology. She told the Harvard Crimson that she “found her passion for public health by embracing uncertainty.” She is “glad she took risks” during her time at Harvard and  “challenged societal and parental expectations when she switched pre-med studies for classes on health inequities and public health issues.” In hindsight, her decision made sense, she told the university paper, as she had been “interested in public health since high school, when she was involved in a mental health education program for youth.”

In Harvard, she started a campaign to ensure that all Harvard bathrooms supply free menstrual products. Thanks to her advocacy, 817 bathrooms across the University are fully stocked with free tampons and sanitary pads on a regular basis.

An accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, she has been learning the dance form since she was 9 years old, and it has taught her “not only the importance of expression of emotion, but also the religion of Hindusim.”

After graduation, she will work on public health entrepreneurship and after that, she plans to attend law school or pursue a Ph.D. “We are all people walking through the world, not really knowing what’s going to happen,” she told the Harvard Crimson. “But the power of not knowing is about how you can turn that space of fear and anxiety into something that is empowering, uplifting, and exciting. It’s a conscious shift that you must make pretty much all the time every day.”

Mental Health and Mindfulness

An accomplished yogi who focuses on mental health practice and mindfulness, Kumar founded GoYogi, a non-profit organization “dedicated to making student mental health and wellbeing a priority in schools worldwide,”according to its website. “We aim to increase access to proactive, mindfulness-based mental health education with a focus in low-income and disadvantaged communities,” the website added.

Explaining the genesis of the organization, the GoYogi website notes that Kumar was inspired to start the non-profit “after realizing the omnipresent culture of stress and anxiety in high schools and middle schools in America.” She felt “a sense of urgency” when her cousin was diagnosed with depression at the age of 13, just as a middle schooler. It was then that Kumar realized “the current solutions to address student mental health are reactive, such as therapy or medication,” the website said. As these options “are not always accessible or affordable, especially for low-income communities and schools,” Kumar wanted “to take a preventative approach to mental health, using techniques which would be accessible to all like mindfulness and meditation to build resiliency in student mental health.” 

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GoYogi uses technology “to integrate custom stress management techniques, breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices directly into the school’s culture and curriculum,” the website explained. “It takes a holistic approach to mental health by bringing together experts from the healthcare, policy, and education sectors to address the global concern of rising mental health issues.” The aims is “to create a school culture around health and wellbeing which positively contributes to student success.”

Kumar’s  journey into competitive yoga began in 2017. Becoming a member of the USA Yoga Federation, she competed at the qualifier level, won first place at state level; placed second  place at regionals; and finished third place at USA Yoga Nationals, according to her website. This win qualified her to compete in the 2018 International Yoga Sports Competition in Beijing, China. She competed in the Youth-Women Division, and finished top ten, taking home a seventh place finish. She was the first Indian American to represent Team USA at the World Championships of Yoga Sports. “It was an amazing experience to meet people from all around the world who were also passionate about yoga,” she says on her website.

Transformation, Self-Discovery, Inspiration

On her website, she has methodically listed her accomplishments from middle school to college, as well as in her extra curricular activities. “My high school journey was filled with transformation, self-discovery, and inspiration,” she says on her website. “If you are just entering high school, I hope this website inspires you to create your own story, embrace your interests and passions, and empowers you to break barriers and influence change.”

In high school, she was one of the top five winners at the 2019 National Speech and Debate Association competition. Competing in a pool of 250 competitors, she advanced through 13 rounds of competition, and placed fifth overall in the final round of Original Oratory.

An accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, she has been learning the dance form since she was 9 years old, and it has taught her “not only the importance of expression of emotion, but also the religion of Hindusim,” she says on her website. “Bharatanatyam has allowed me to grow in my artistic nature and has taught me the value of preserving my culture and knowing my ancestry.”

In her senior year in high school, she won first place in the 2019-2020 Voice of Democracy National competition. She won a $30,000 college scholarship for her speech on the theme “What Makes America Great. She was sponsored by VFW Post 1581 in Omaha.

Similar to her undergraduate career, Kumar ended her high school life with a bang — as Valedictorian of the Class of 2020 at  Marian High School. In an interview published at the time in the high school newspaper, The Network, she advised underclassmen to “maintain grades” by trying to give their best on every assignment. “Especially when you get to the end of junior and senior year, it can be easy to do your assignments just to get them done, but try to give your best on each assignment, even though you may not want to,” she said. “If you don’t stay on top of school work for yourself, then you will be doing it under someone else’s pressure, and that never feels good. I think having the right perspective to studying and education is important.” She also gave a shoutout to Marian’s teachers who are “the most amazing and dedicated, and that truly benefited me in my education.”

(Top photo, YouTube screenshot, and the rest courtesy of www.shruthikumar.com.)

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