Devanath a little woman with big controversy

By Tara Nair

Nila Devanath won’t reap the benefits from one of her greatest Student Government Board… Nila Devanath won’t reap the benefits from one of her greatest Student Government Board victories.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for people on SGB to realize that it takes a lot longer than one year, and that’s all they have,” Devanath said.

The neuroscience, psychology and sociology triple major spent four years working on changing Pitt’s final exam policy to allow students to reschedule their tests if they have three or more on the same day.

But the policy’s creation is the end of just one of the many battles Devanath has fought over her past four years at Pitt. And to people’s delight or dismay, Pitt senior Sudipta “Nila” Devanath is staying on campus.

The former two-year SGB member fought against faculty backlash, but the provost’s office finally passed it at the end of January this year.

The Final Exam Accomodation Policy will be in place this fall. The provost’s office is working out more specifics of the plan, but Devanath is still a voting committee member of the advisory committee. So if problems arise with the policy, she can still work to modify it.

As one of most active and public figures on campus during her time at Pitt, Devanath served for two years as a SGB member, worked for UPTV and worked as a member of United States Student Association, which lobbies government for various student-related issues. And now, a month before she graduates with her bachelor’s degree, she has been elected president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the governing body of all 10,000 graduate and professional students at the University.

Battle in the boardroom

Devanath was on the Academic Affairs Committee of Student Government Board her freshman year and was appointed to the chair position the following year. She then served as an elected Board member for two years.

Charlie Shull, current SGB president, has known Nila since fall 2007 when they ran on the same slate for Board positions.

“In my experience working with Nila, she’s always attuned herself to be very principled, and she moves with a view toward absolute achievement,” Shull said. “She stayed overnight with SafeRider to see what the system was like from their standpoint, how it worked. In that way, she fulfills all aspects of a job.”

Shull said the two never worked directly on a project together outside of campaigning.

“She’d do what it takes to accomplish the job,” Shull said. “While I don’t feel Nila has always shown appropriate respect for all SGB positions, especially the president last year, I feel that she was always working toward the betterment of the students.”

Former SGB President Kevin Morrison, who clashed with Devanath both privately and publicly, declined to comment on his experience working with Devanath.

“We’ve had a very tumultuous relationship,” Devanath said. “We only got to learn about each other’s leadership styles at the end of our terms.”

Devanath said the two did not speak for some time while in office, but once the tuition tax proposal came up, they came together to fight it at City Council.

“In the end, what Kevin wants and what I want are the same thing — to help the students,” Devanath said.

Devanath described the 2009 SGB as a “spectrum of disagreement,” with her at one end and former President Morrison at the other.

During the fall budget hearings, 14 student organizations appealed the allocatiosn decisions they had been given.

When the board voted on whether the allocations committee made the right decisions or not, the vote was split 7-1 seven times, with Devanath voting one way and the remaining board members the other.

Devanath said there was always disagreement over funding the Asian groups because there were many different types such as dance groups and cultural groups. She said some board members didn’t want to give one group money when another group requested funding for a similar thing, though not the exact same.

“I could vote to withhold the money, but their programs looked like they would attract a lot of people. My core philosophy is that it’s the students’ money, so give it to them,” Devanath said.

Devanath said that problems occurred when resolutions on administration-student communication were proposed after the G-20 Summit.

Devanath also voted against the G-20 Summit-related resolution Shull and former SGB member Lance Bonner proposed. The resolution said the board would work with the administration to explain police action during the protests. Devanath didn’t vote for the resolution, which passed, because it didn’t specify what how SGB would “work” with the administration.

“Some words were said that were very unprofessional, so I left the meeting,” Devanath said. “It was very hurtful, and I didn’t really know how to come back.”

“There was a certain point when I started feeling excluded, but it usually wasn’t overt hostility … it was like office culture, where some people say ‘hi’ to each other and others don’t,” she said.

Assorted interests

Devanath hasn’t been deterred though. She’s staying on campus and staying involved.

She received acceptance to the guaranteed medical program at Pitt and will be doing a combined M.D./J.D. program.

A J.D. program normally takes three years, but some institutions have accelerated programs where you take classes during the summer and finish in two years. Pitt doesn’t have this type of J.D. program, so Devanath is looking to take classes at other universities for two summers.

Her combined program will be two years of med school, followed by two of law, then the last two of med.

“If I’m going to be an M.D./J.D. before I’m 30, that’s still pretty sweet,” Devanath said.

She considered deferring her entrance into medical school for two years to work for the Teach For America program stationed in eastern North Carolina, two hours away from her hometown in Suffolk, Va.

“Suffolk is known for peanuts … it’s actually the home of Mr. Peanut. Otherwise it’s just farms and stuff,” Devanath said.

Dr. Nripendra Devanath, Nila’s father, said Nila read profusely growing up.

“One summer when she was in fourth grade, I gave her a set of children’s encyclopedias, and she read all 21 volumes that summer,” Dr. Devanath said. “If she sees something while walking on the street, she’ll pick it up and read it.”

Dr. Devanath said that Nila has always been involved, just on a smaller scale in comparison to what she has done at Pitt. She took lessons in Bharatanatyam, a form of classical Indian dance, for 10 years, art classes, and played piano and lacrosse.

Devanath graduated as valedictorian in a class of 87 students from a Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.

“Everybody knew everybody. It was just like one huge bubble,” Devanath said.

Devanath said that unlike now, she was very quiet in high school.

She said the thing that bothered her most was that her school was very cliquey.

“If I ever tried to break into a new social circle, it would be so awkward because our groups had been set in stone since first grade,” Devanath said.

Devanath said the theme of her graduation speech was embracing that awkwardness.

“The word [awkwardness] itself is just a state of mind — it’s this weird fear that people have that stops them from doing things,” Devanath said.

Devanath said that coming to Pitt, away from her bubble, really forced her to confront awkwardness.

“I learned that nobody is going to come to my door and say, ‘Hey, do you want this internship? Do you want to do this research? Do you want to run for Student Government Board?’” she said.

Devanath also mentioned working for Cutco Cutlery in Virginia Beach for three weeks during the summer after freshman year.

“It sounds funny, but when you’re out there and you’re selling knives, you have to learn how to sell,” Devanath said.

Lobbying for students

Devanath is a neuroscience, psychology and sociology triple major.

Devanath was the Atlantic region chair for the United States Student Association and is now president of the Pitt chapter, which she started for the organization.

Aster Teclay, vice president of Pitt’s chapter in USSA, said she and Devanath are currently working with Penn State, Cheyney University and other schools in Pennsylvania to make a statewide college student association. She said that many other states such as Florida, California, North Carolina and Oregon already have statewide organizations.

Teclay and Devanath traveled last year to Washington with other USSA members.

“We’re literally running across Capitol Hill all day, and we have to still be professional,” Teclay said. “People shouldn’t be dropping out of school because they can’t afford it. We’re doing this for everyone in Pennsylvania.”

“I think that if I hadn’t come to Pitt, I wouldn’t have done anything that I’m doing right now,” Devanath said.

She was born in Pittsburgh when her father did a one-year fellowship at Pitt’s medical school, but she but had never really considered coming to Pitt until she stumbled across an alumni magazine her father had received in the mail.

“In Virginia we have schools like William & Mary and [Virginia] Tech, and so there’s really no reason to go out of state,” Devanath said.

Devanath received the University Honors College Full Tuition Scholarship from Pitt.

“She wanted to go to an Ivy League college. That was her main wish,” Dr. Devanath said.

He said that Nila got into Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, but the cost was too high for her attend those universities.

Dr. Devanath said Nila was never set on what she wanted to be when she grew up. One day she would say she wanted to be a marine biolgist, another day a vet.

Although she did the pre-med track, Devanath told her father that she also wanted to pursue law. He gave her the idea to be a lawyer involved with medical techniques. Devanath said she is interested in being a human rights lawyer for mental patients.

Devanath said that she didn’t look at the world that way before she came to Pitt. She said that taking sociology classes her freshman year showed her concrete statistics in addition to her anecdotal observations about the racial disparities present around her, especially in education.

“There’s little things that don’t add up. Why are most of our professors a certain race and gender? Why are most of the Market Central employees a certain race and gender?” Devanath said.

Devanath said that attending a USSA conference with her SGB running mate Amanda Reed and working for the organization changed her whole perspective on what she wanted to do in the future.

Devanath decided to run for SGB because she wanted the ability to make change and make it faster than what she did at the academic affairs chair level.

“Committee chairs are appointed, so because I was not elected by the students, I didn’t have much weight with administration,” she said.

Devanath worked for years to streamline the SafeRider program.

“To freshmen, sometimes Pathfinders and PittStart make it seem like SafeRider is a magical bus,” Devanath said, “but the program is stretched too thin.”

Although Devanath ended her SGB term last December, she continued to work with the Provost’s Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns and was able to get extended hours for the 10A and 30C Pitt shuttles.

Little Nila

Although the student organizations take up most of her time, Devanath said she enjoys sleeping and dancing. Devanath is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, Blue and Gold Society and the UPTV Channel 21. She was business manager of UPTV for two years and wrote part of the script for the 24-Hour Film Festival in February.

She learned classical Indian dancing for 10 years and was a part of Nrityamala, a classical Indian dance group at Pitt, her freshman year.

Devanath is also into vampire TV shows. She began having “Angel”-watching marathons with her friends during Snowpocalypse 2010 and watched the series finale last Tuesday.

Devanath’s big sister in Delta Phi Epsilon, Christine Black, described Devanath as “vivacious, funny, socially conscious and culturally aware.”

“I met her at a Habitat for Humanity workday, and we instantly had so much to talk about,” Black said. “We share a lot of the same interests, and we both love Indian food,” she said.

Black, a member of the National Panhellenic Conference, knew right away that she wanted Devanath as her little sister.

Black said that when she graduated in December 2008, Devanath gifted her a giant photo collage of the sorority family, a goodie bag of Indian gifts and even had Shull come play acoustic guitar and sing for Black in front of the whole chapter.

“All the girls were oohing and ahhing,” Black said.

Devanath said she got the idea after seeing Shull practicing his guitar one day after they finished running their second SGB campaign together and knew that Black and Shull were good friends through PanHel.

Shull said he usually doesn’t do things like this for anyone besides his girlfriend but did it as a favor to Devanath and Black.

Devanath’s close friend and fellow pledge class member, Janine Glasson, said Devanath takes pains to treat people fairly and maintain relationships in her personal life and all her interpersonal interactions.

“She’s very straightforward and direct, which can rub people the wrong way if they’re not used to that,” Glasson said.

Changing the system

Devanath wants to see greater student representation for SGB.

“One reason administration takes long to respond is because they know we’re just nine people, if we had 30, 40 or 60 that’s more of a force, it’s more student power,” Devanath said.

She said nine is a good number of people to handle student organization allocations but that more are needed for voting on student aid reforms and other issues such as the tuition tax with City Council.

Devanath said that by being a part of USSA she got to meet a lot of college students from different schools across the country and could see the usefulness in having a senate system.

She said that Pitt could create a senate system in which each school within the University would have a set number of representatives.

“I feel like there would be more dialogue and it would make it easier to reach out,” Devanath said. “It has always bothered me that SGB represents 17,000 undergrads, but it’s only nine people.”

She also mentioned that SGB works on a campus, local and state level, but she would like to see it work at the federal level like USSA.

Devanath said she would gauge what was her biggest accomplishment at Pitt “by what helps the most people in the end, whether it was something [she] regarded as big or small.”