Interview with Serena Alagappan ’20, Rhodes Scholar

In a recent interview with the Princetonian, you shared that you were raised in a bicultural family, with your mother being raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and your father being raised in a traditional Hindu home. What do you think religious narratives have to offer us today? Which themes and motifs have you found to be connective/ corroborative, if any?

Religious narratives can ground and animate our current experience with enduring stories from the past. Sometimes, these narratives even offer us the opportunity to grow into (not out of) them with age, promoting lifelong exploration and discovery. My grandfather used to tell me that God dwells in human beings. Kindness to others is like praying at their temple. These figurative and loving implications are the parts of religious narratives that I find most compelling and emotionally resonant.

What does being a member of Ivy mean to you? What initially drew you to the Club, and how do you imagine you will remember it as you move on from Princeton?

I was initially drawn to the Club because my sister had earlier been a member and I always looked up to her and her friends. . . I will remember the Club as a fun place to dance after a long week and a lovely place to study. I will remember the great bands that have come to lawn parties. I will definitely remember the French toast (it’s delicious!). When I reflect on my time at Princeton, I am extraordinarily grateful for the beautiful set of meals I have had with friends around tables– some with, and some without, white cloth and candelabras. To me, being a member of Ivy means sharing the club with as many friends from around campus as I can. Ultimately, I am most thankful for the wide array of conversations I engaged in at Princeton—with club members as well as individuals from different clubs, backgrounds, and perspectives.

What do you think is a human being’s most powerful mode of story-telling? How might we strengthen that mode (or preserve it)?

For one person, it might be film, for another painting, for another theater, and yet another, poetry. Someone might find the most compelling stories emerge from data gathered in a science lab, while someone else might search for meaning in historical archives. Regrettably, I do think storytelling, whether spoken, written, or signed, is often relegated to something less rigorous or meaningful than other academic subjects. We often hear about how the humanities are under siege, and I think that’s a shame! I believe one way we might strengthen and preserve any mode of storytelling is by recognizing two things. First, stories engender empathy. We study literature because it helps us live. Stories help us develop compassion for people who are and are not like us. Well told stories transcend difference. Second, stories are sanctuaries for culture. They shelter the religious ideals, political realities, technological innovations and artistic impulses and creations of a society. We can preserve stories by prioritizing humanistic inquiry, and recognizing the inextricable connection between literature and life.

What would you say is your greatest motivation?

My greatest motivation is love. Love for my family, love for my friends and community, love for languages, love for the characters I encounter in stories… I am motivated to be a good friend, to be loyal and dependable to the people I have in my life. I love Princeton, and am extremely grateful to Comparative Literature. The Department gave me the liberty to exercise my creative passions and explore wide-ranging academic interests, from French, Latin, and German works in translation, to Modernist English Literature and American Sign Language.

This interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Travel plans are currently indeterminate.

Interview with Nate Levit ’20, Schwarzman Scholar

This interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Travel plans are currently indeterminate.

Nate, warm congratulations on being awarded the Schwarzman scholarship. What does this opportunity mean to you?

It’s an incredible honor. I’m excited to use the opportunity to spend a year studying China’s poverty mitigation policies. 800 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last few decades. However, this progress has come with remarkable costs. I look forward to using the scholarship as a springboard to continue pursuing policies that ensure no one is held responsible for the circumstances of their own birth.

You will be studying economics and business, international studies, and public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, starting this August. Which of these areas of study are you most interested in, and how have you gained knowledge of it via concrete experiences?

The great benefit of being from Green Country, in Oklahoma is that I’ve seen the power of a small group of dedicated people in the policy process. With that being said, I look forward to expanding my knowledge base past public policy by taking courses in economics and business. Through this, I hope to further understand the push-and-pull between public regulation and private innovation.

You have an interest in creating effective public policy to improve social outcomes. What is your earliest memory of desiring to create a more equitable society? In your opinion, how might one turn the scales toward fairness and justice in their day-to-day life, and what does this look like for you?

The reality of inequality crystallized for me at my high school, Booker T. Washington High, where most people received free and reduced lunch. The people I went to high school with were just as smart, intellectually curious, and dedicated as anyone I’ve met at Princeton, yet because of circumstances beyond their own control they often were unable to continue their education. As for your next question, I’m not convinced that I, or anyone, have the perfect answer for balancing the scales of grotesque inequality. What I do know is this: our public discourse constantly substitutes applause lines about inequality for actual proven solutions.

We should probably talk about free pre-k rather than free college; we should hear debate responses about child poverty rather than manufactured controversies over out-of-context quotes; we should see headlines about massive cuts to social safety net programs rather than ad-hominem attacks or bumper-sticker solutions. I’m worried that when it comes to the basic function of our government—to ensure that everyone in America has equality of opportunity— we have lost the forest for the trees.

One of your areas of study is journalism. What’s a topic that you feel is underrepresented in mainstream news and media?

I am concerned about the future of local news. Newspapers have lost half of their employees in the last decade, and 1,300 localities have lost news coverage. This creates real problems like no reporter checking in on the county commissioners meeting or no investigations into local governments, important tasks that no Twitter account can fully replace. Rumors go unconfirmed, crimes go unreported, acts of corruption go uninvestigated. I also think that newspapers closing has the downstream effect of nationalizing politics: elections become less about a problem in the community and more about some vague conception of ideology.

Outside of academics, what enlivens you and gives meaning to your life?

As any of my friends can attest, I’m very easily entertained. I’m fortunate enough to enjoy very simple things, whether it’s an Oklahoma Sooners football game or a well-written piece of creative nonfiction. And, of course, I love nothing more than spending my weekends with friends and family.

Any plans to explore while you are abroad? What do you want to see and experience?

I’ve never visited China, I don’t know the language, and I’ve never taken a class focused solely on the country. I can only imagine that walking through the streets of Beijing for the first time will be a breathtaking experience. I plan to explore the entire continent, finding a new destination each passing weekend, and immerse myself as holistically as possible. I’m most excited to just learn by osmosis, taking in every sight, participating in every activity, talking to every person.

Finally, can you share with us your favorite memory of Ivy, and/or what the Club has meant to you?

Ivy has been a highlight of my Princeton experience. The class above me welcomed me with open arms, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know those in my section and those in the year below. I’ll cherish the friendships I’ve made at 43 Prospect Avenue forever, whether it was hatched playing games on the foyer couches, dancing in the tap room, or sitting down in the dining hall. I know that I will look back on my years in Ivy as a time where I really could be myself.