Anam Vadgama ’18 never planned on coming to Princeton University. Growing up in Mumbai, India, girls like her are not often expected to get an education, let alone study abroad in the United States.
But her passion for learning and desire to create change and help others led her to not only excel at the B.D. Somani International School in Mumbai, but also thrive here at Princeton. On Monday, June 4, Vadgama was recognized for her commitment to service, civic engagement, and academic excellence with the 2018 Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize.
Given each year on Class Day, the Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize is awarded by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to a Princeton senior who has demonstrated independence and imagination in the area of community service, seeks knowledge and purposeful adventure in unfamiliar cultures, and maintains strong academic work. The prize commends the qualities of curiosity in the world and commitment to the betterment of the world by recognizing outstanding past contributions to community service. The prize is granted to encourage the student recipient to explore new challenges in the future.
“I come from a community where girls are not allowed to study,” said Vadgama. “To give you some perspective, my grandmother was the president of her school, my mother was the president of her school, and I was president of my school, but both my grandmother and mother were pulled out of school to get married between 16 and 18 years of age. And that’s the trajectory that happens with a lot of girls in my community. So it’s a big deal to even have an education, [and to have an education] not just outside your city, not just outside your state, but outside your country in the USA is just mind-blowing.”
While at Princeton, Vadgama has taken full advantage of the depth and breadth of what the University has to offer – inside and outside the classroom.
Academically, she has purposefully sought out opportunities to broaden her perceptions and perspectives. She researched lion conversation in Zimbabwe with African Impact and translated nutritional education material in Spain with Vita Mundi. She learned Arabic in Jordan as part of a study abroad semester with AMIDEAST, studied geopolitics in Israel with Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and grappled with human rights and environmental issues in Azerbaijan as part of a global seminar.
In addition, she consistently engaged in endeavors and projects that not only offered her the chance to gain new skills, but also enabled her to benefit the community – locally and globally. She taught education, and dance in Zimbabwe, English to Tibetan refugees with LHA Charitable Trust, and dance at the Boys and Girls Club of Mercer County in Trenton, NJ as part of the Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) course Dance in Education: Dance/Theater Pedagogy. She volunteered as a tutor with SVC Impact, a Student Volunteers Council (SVC) service project and participated in the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Educaiton’s Tiger Challenge program – all while maintaining a 3.93 grade point average.
“[Anam] has traveled extensively in a wide variety of cultures,” said David Stirk, dean of Butler College. “And her coursework is amazingly varied. … She is an incredible student and completely deserving of this honor.”
While she could have majored in many subjects, her experience founding a student group in India called Felicity, which sought to promote gender equality in access to education through awareness, skills development programs, and theater, led her to one choice – politics.
“[Felicity] started off with just three girls wanting to help out in the school,” Vadgama said. “We wanted to help girls be more equipped for life, to get an education, to continue on after their education to be ready for jobs, things like that.” While developing and running workshops across slum-dwelling communities, juvenile remand homes, and underprivileged girls’ schools, she realized the power that the government has to affect the community.
“I encountered frequent obstacles from some government officials, but I also met other government officials who were doing incredible work,” she said. “In all instances, I quickly realized the immense impact one could have working for the government. That’s when I decided that I want to be on the other side of the table. I want to create impact. … I want to work for the government and I want to enter the health sector and the education sector to make change in society. … With that in mind, politics was a natural choice.”
“Princeton has just been the best four years of my life,” said Vadgama. “I came into Princeton without any exposure to the world except for the confines of my community, which was not very much. And Princeton opened for me not a whole new world, but multiple new worlds. Ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of understanding the world. My frame of thinking moved from beyond my community and my life to global issues. My sense of what is possible increased from just me and my immediate family to all of India, and all of humanity." - Anam Vadgama '18
Studying political science afforded her the flexibility to seek out understanding of different regions of the world, and closely examine the relationships between systems and cultures, both historically and in present times. “I’ve learned about how different societies operate, learning from their histories, from their past mistakes, from what they did right and what they did wrong,” Vadgama said. “I just found everything so relevant to today’s days and times, and this all led up to my senior thesis which is about India.”
For her thesis, Vadgama sought to understand why some governments are better than others at providing public goods. She specifically focused on The Clean India Mission, a national campaign launched in India in 2014 to curtail illness and improve the environment through better sanitation.
“While everyone stands to benefit from a cleaner and more hygienic environment, delivering this public good required everyone to cooperate – some communities struggled to deliver, while others succeeded,” said Jennifer Widner, Vadgama’s thesis adviser, professor of politics and international affairs with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and international affairs, and director of a research program on institution building and institutional reform called Innovations for Successful Societies. “This thesis is an ambitious effort to answer an important question – why?”
Without a ready database of information to turn to, Anam conducted extensive interviews with officials, implementers, and civil society groups – many of whom she’d likely work with later on if she enters the sphere of civil service in India.
She is grateful for everyone she’s met and worked with at Princeton and credits Tiger Challenge and CBLI as being particularly impactful to her Princeton experience.
“Tiger Challenge gave me a toolkit to think about problems,” Vadgama said. “In design thinking the first thing you do before tackling the problem, is you learn about the problem. For me that experience was very impactful because all of us want to make change, to do something good, but we don’t know how to start. … And sometimes what you think is the problem, really isn’t the problem at all. Now I feel equipped with skills I can transfer to any context.”
With Tiger Challenge, Vadgama helped refugees find better careers in New York and New Jersey. This summer she will be part of another Tiger Challenge team collaborating with the mayor and town of Princeton on the challenge of waste contamination.
“[Anam] is the most courageous person, student or adult, with whom I’ve worked,” said Rafe Steinhauer, entrepreneurial program manager with Tiger Challenge. “She [is] a superb embodiment and ambassador for the legacy of Priscilla Glickman.”
As part of the dance education CBLI course with Rebecca Stenn, lecturer in dance with the Lewis Center for the Arts, Vadgama was tasked with designing a syllabus and working with youth at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Mercer County in Trenton, NJ – a task that Stenn says Vadgama not only enjoyed, but excelled at.
“My students do a great deal of fieldwork for the course, teaching in a number of underserved communities in the general region and vicinity of Princeton,” said Stenn. “Anam approached her classes and lesson planning with incredible imagination and verve – she is deeply committed to civic engagement, taking on great challenges, solving problems with creativity and compassion and all the while, encouraging her classmates to do the same.”
Vadgama acknowledges the course not only gave her the confidence to work in different contexts and the cultural literacy to engage with difference communities, but also provided the tools for her to create a practical resource that she plans to bring to life in India next year.
“Our assignment was to make a 15-class syllabus, and it was meant to be sort of a hypothetical class syllabus which could be used eventually, but I’m a little impatient about service,” said Vadgama. “I want things done now. So I thought, if I’m doing this I want it to be impactful and I was to use it right away.”
She began talking with government officials and non-governmental organizations in India to float the idea of creating a 15-class syllabus to support students and boost performance at a critical juncture in India’s educational system.
“So the biggest exam in India is the Tenth Standard Matriculation Examination, which determines your college, because in India 11th and 12th grades are college,” said Vadgama. “A lot of students drop out after [tenth grade] because their grades are so low, especially in public schools [where] there’s a lot of catching up to do. So I said, OK I am going to design a syllabus for the tenth graders because this is the most important examination of their life.”
She made a 15-class syllabus for history, political science, and English literature for tenth graders using movement and dance. “So what does this mean?” she asked. “This means that all students can be engaged. This means that it is activating their kinesthetic intelligence, which is thoroughly neglected as they are sitting in class. This is a totally different approach that could actually potentially boost test scores in a way that could help even the [students] at the bottom of the class really come up.”
She is currently in talks with government leaders and educational organizations about the syllabus project and is excited about is prospects. Immediately after graduation, Vadgama will dive back into Tiger Challenge in the local Princeton community and will study martial arts to build her mental and physical strength in preparation for her plans to travel and serve in the government in India. Vadgama plans to put the monetary support from the Glickman Prize toward her goal of advancing education for girls in India.
“Princeton has just been the best four years of my life,” said Vadgama. “I came into Princeton without any exposure to the world except for the confines of my community, which was not very much. And Princeton opened for me not a whole new world, but multiple new worlds. Ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of understanding the world. My frame of thinking moved from beyond my community and my life to global issues. My sense of what is possible increased from just me and my immediate family to all of India, and all of humanity.
“And at the same point Princeton [has] made me so, so grateful and also humble because I was constantly surrounded by the most beautiful people, very smart most amazing professors, and the most supportive staff and faculty,” she continued. “Princeton has made me who I am and I couldn’t be more grateful."