Student Senate hosts 'First Lectures' event

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 6/4/22 to remove confidential information at the request of one of the speakers.

At the Student Senate's "First Lectures" event on Monday, four graduating seniors shared their stories of finding a sense of belonging and balance at Carnegie Mellon.

The speakers included Spandan Sharma, Anmol Surpur, Govind Menon, and Arjun Ramachandran. Each of them detailed the experiences that led them to become Carnegie Mellon students, who are about to embark on the next phase of their lives.

Most of the seniors spoke on how finding their place at Carnegie Mellon took time and how they built their communities. Each speaker had plenty of support among the audience and were student leaders — Sharma and Ramachandran were on orientation staff and Menon was Student Body President, for example — but they still struggled to fit in at first.

For Sharma, her struggles with imposter syndrome and performance anxiety started when she became a Carnegie Mellon international student. After completing her first year, she said, "too much had changed, and I felt like I belonged neither in the U.S. and India." This performance anxiety eventually spiraled into academic integrity violations for Sharma.

Menon similarly had trouble building a sense of community after moving multiple times as a child. After moving to Illinois, then Dubai, and then back to New York, the repeated loss of his friends left him lonely. After moving to New York, he said, he was unable to make friends, and "shedded a lot of my old Dubai persona." Menon continued, "I would come home and cry every day, begging my mom to allow me to transfer schools because I just did not feel accepted there," he said.

However, both Menon and Sharma learned to set roots in their new situations after someone extended acceptance to them. For Menon, he found a place after a friend "went out of her way to celebrate my true personality in a way that a lot of the other kids weren't," he said. This allowed him to not only fit in in New York, but caused him to make more friends and build more community in college.

Now, Menon credits his network of friendships across Carnegie Mellon for his experiences in Illinois, Dubai, and New York. "I think it comes from not wanting to return to a place where I once was. I've been the person nobody wanted to know a little too often in my life," he explained. "This has been the first community that has truly welcomed me with open arms."

Sharma marked a couple of mentors helping her as a turning point in her college career. After her academic integrity violations, these mentors supported her remaining at Carnegie Mellon. Sharma said, "seeing their confidence in my potential … laid the foundation for a fresh start."

Surpur also struggled with anxiety throughout college. However, Surpur said that she aimed for work completion instead of perfection to overcome this. Recounting her experience joining a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) group, she said, "I was immediately nervous and panicked," Surpur explained. "I was acutely aware of the fact that I was just an undergrad surrounded by some of the most successful women in their respective fields."

Still, Surpur noticed that even her mentors in this group seemed to have the same worries she did. "Phrases such as 'if that even makes sense,' 'I know I need a lot of help with this section,' and 'I'm not even sure if this sounds good' echoed around the room," she said. This helped Surprur realize how much women belittle themselves compared to their male colleagues. Instead of comparing ourselves to others negatively, Surpur suggested, "I challenge you all just to recognize how amazing you all are."

Surpur also explained how she was able to overcome trauma at Carnegie Mellon and outside of it. In 2019, she said, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. "Once I had learned about her diagnosis, a lot of issues and stresses in my life became meaningless," Surpur said. Her mother was eventually cleared of cancer, and she inspired Surpur to live every day to the fullest. Nonetheless, Surpur explained that she has had to work on controlling her anxieties and depression. "I've spent the year working on myself, and unlearning the toxic behaviors that controlled my life."

Ramachandran also talked about his struggles to live every day to the fullest. During his sophomore year in 2019, he said, he was performing professionally as a percussionist while still taking classes. As a musician, though, he said that concerts no longer gave him joy. It had been his dream to perform at The Music Academy in India but, Ramachandran said, he had to focus on networking with the right people instead of his music because of this.

"I lost sight of what really mattered," Ramachandran said. "I had one step in CMU and one step in the concert circuit and I wasn't getting much out of either."

Despite the pandemic being stressful for Ramachandran and his family, he credited it with giving him time off to reflect. During the fall of 2020, he said he was able to re-focus on school and could "reintroduce music into my life in an organic way."

As his senior year wrapped up, Ramachandran said his experience and reflection guided his last year at Carnegie Mellon. Ramachandran said, "I knew what I wanted to make of my senior year, and it was to stop racing and stop running."