Vijay Pendakur, the new dean of students at Cornell University, pronounces himself an active advocate for student wellness. It’s a position that seems driven from personal experience.
During a talk on February 2 at Cornell’s Center for Intercultural Dialogue (reported by the Cornell Daily Sun), he revealed how he and his sister were harassed and bullied growing up in Chicago as the children of immigrants from India. He spoke candidly about how he struggled socially and benefited from seven years of psychotherapy.
From the Cornell Daily Sun’s report:
He recalled moving to the north side of Chicago as “challenging” and “transformative,” because he and his sister experienced harassment and bullying as minorities in their community.
Even after moving out of Chicago, Pendakur said he continued to face microaggressions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, he said he was challenged to adjust to a predominantly white, rural student population.
Pendakur also struggled to make friends and used hypermasculinity as a coping mechanism to face his fears.
“As a man, I did not talk with anybody about how I really felt,” he said. “I was deeply scarred and troubled inside but the outside was just like chip on my shoulder all the time because that was the learned behavior for me to stay safe.”
Pendakur said his academic pursuits in American history, Africana studies and gender studies helped him contextualize his struggles. While he continued to struggle socially, he found a mentor through a job at the campus multicultural center, which eventually led him to find a vocation in social justice and diversity education.
During his career he received psychotherapeutic help for seven years—a decision he made after a low point in his late 20’s—and found that he was able to “rewrite [his] history.”
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “For me, the psychotherapeutic process allowed me to actually go back and turn the mirror inward.”
In an interview with the Cornell Chronicle published January 18, Pendakur addressed the mental health struggles of today’s college students:
Across higher education, we are seeing a rising prevalence of complex mental health concerns, stress and medical needs. Wellness is part of the fundamental investment college and university campuses need to make to enhance learning. For example, if you are not sleeping, or are dealing with a body image issue or a deep sense of isolation, your organic chemistry or calculus class becomes secondary.
Pendakur comes to Ithaca from California State University, Fullerton, where he served as associate vice president for the Division of Student Affairs. He earned a B.A. in History and East Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2001, an M.A. in U.S. History from the University of California, San Diego, in 2005, and an Ed.D. from DePaul University in 2013.