Whether writing and performing sketch and stand-up comedy for Tufts comedy groups or working to make the community a better place through service work, graduating senior Isha Patnaik works toward fostering inclusivity and engagement.
Patnaik grew up in the Bay Area as the daughter of Indian immigrants. She was surrounded by a primarily Asian community and attended a high school where 80 percent of students were Asian. Patnaik described her high school education as a stressful, “toxic” environment in which the curriculum focused primarily on math and science.
During high school, she struck a balance between STEM fields and the arts, working on her writing and photography while indulging her mother’s hopes for her to become an engineer. At Tufts, she confronted her Indian-American identity head on, she said.
“I came to Tufts, and I was … shocked by how many white people there are here, [and] was really hesitant to join cultural groups because that’s something that I thought would make me feel different. Retrospectively, I wish I had been more involved with Asian-American activism and community building throughout my time here,” Patnaik said.
Despite her initial worries about being different, Patnaik channeled her Indian-American identity through comedy. Early in her comedy career, Patnaik made jokes about topics that were broadly relatable, but more recently, she has started writing about being a minority.
“Especially after the election, it felt imperative,” she said. “I know there’s so much I don’t have control over in this world, and I think being able to do stand-up about oppression … helps me reclaim power.”
Last year, Patnaik co-founded TFL — a campus space meant to honor and uplift women’s voices in comedy — which she says is her favorite accomplishment at Tufts. Together with Jehan Madhani (LA ‘16), and drawing from a Facebook page started by Aliza Small (LA ‘15), Patnaik formed the group in an effort to bring together women who performed stand-up and provide a network of support in an area traditionally dominated by white men. Formerly known as Tufts Funny Ladies, the group’s name was changed to TFL to include femme-identifying and gender non-conforming individuals, according to Patnaik.
Patnaik said there is still work to be done — TFL is predominantly made up of white and affluent members. Still, she is confident in the group’s ability to stay diverse, inclusive and intentional.
As a coordinator of the FOCUS pre-orientation program in 2015 and a tutor for three years with the Leonard Carmichael Society, Patnik has also devoted herself to supporting students’ social and academic well-being. She said that FOCUS allowed her to immerse herself in meaningful volunteering.
“I think I spent most of my life on this path toward technology and spent a lot of time feeling like I’m going to work in tech someday, and I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s take a summer and explore something different,’” she said.
Patnik is grateful for the value of FOCUS in increasing her confidence on campus, and agency as a student who helps first-years acclimate and comfort with community building. However, she has taken time to think critically about the potential ineffectiveness of Tufts students doing one day of volunteering during FOCUS and not maintaining that connection with the community long-term.
She has also been involved in various technological pursuits, from researching child development with Tufts’ Developmental Technologies (DevTech) Research Group to spending the summer as a user research intern at Airbnb.
After enjoying working with children through the DevTech Research Group, this summer she will channel her lab skills to work with social robotics company Jibo. The company is based in Boston, but Patnaik stressed her desire to return to the Bay Area someday and work in technology accessibility or with children.
“I wholly believe in the power of technology to bring good to people’s lives,” she said.
Patnaik also wants to continue writing and performing comedy, and she expressed gratitude to the Tufts community for encouraging her to cultivate this passion.
“I think it’s really incredible to have loved something like I loved comedy. To have loved [comedy] gives me faith that I will be able to do that in the future,” she said. “And I think I wouldn’t have been able to do that in another place. Tufts gave me the opportunity to appreciate and engage and care, which is something I’ll always carry with me.”