Climbing Through Advocacy
By Akshay Prabhushankar, Deputy Managing Editor
Summer interns at the White House are just like the rest of us. They leave the office — the New Executive Office Building on H Street in Washington, D.C. in this case — for lunch and talk about anything but work.
One day in July, however, the conversation turned to politics. Shriya Khonde and about seven of her friends were getting food across the street — “probably grilled cheese or a salad,” she said, a contrast to President Trump’s preferred Filet-o-Fish and Diet Coke from McDonald’s — when someone brought up the East Wing tour they would be going on the next day.
“They said they were going to wear their best outfit because apparently Ivanka Trump came and took a picture with the other interns,” Khonde recalled. “And then someone [else] started talking about how she was the perfect person, a Barbie doll, the embodiment of perfect.”
The Tandon junior worked as an intern in the nonpartisan information technology department of the executive branch. This is separate from the White House Internship Program, which is considered a political gig, and her projects were unrelated to Trump’s policies. It’s a clarification she likes to make quickly to her friends at NYU.
“I’m asked about it a lot,” she said. “But the political agenda did not affect my work. I only saw the president once, on my first day there […] since he uninvited the Philadelphia Eagles.”
Khonde is referring to the president canceling a visit by the Super Bowl-winning team after some players refused to attend. He instead threw a party meant to, as he said, “celebrate America” that Khonde attended with her boss.
As a business and technology management major, Khonde took interest in the role to observe how a government IT department is different than those at private companies, and had assumed that her fellow interns had similar motivations, until that one lunch break.
“I was very surprised [by their] strong support for the president,” she said about the other interns. “I was there for the professional experience in a government setting. They were there for a completely different reason — the administration itself.”
Khonde was the only woman of color in the department and, as native of Edison, New Jersey, a town with a large South Asian community, the demographic difference was jarring.
“I couldn’t get a word in, which I think is a reflection of where [the country] is now,” she said.
I asked whether it was possible to really separate any White House job from the chief executive and his attacks on women, immigrants and science, all boxes that are checked by Khonde or her loved ones.
“I’m not a very confrontational person, and I didn’t want to push my beliefs on others,” she replied. “But I stood up for what I believed in.”
The projects she worked on in Washington included managing the White House’s cloud storage needs and organizing travel for the Office of Administration when employees traveled to Helsinki for a summit that made international headlines. While IT projects like these are not dazzling on the surface, they are still impactful. Getting others to recognize the value of nitty-gritty work is a struggle she has faced on Tandon’s Undergraduate Student Council too.
“If [Tandon students] don’t see any tangible changes, they just feel like nothing’s being done,” she said. Making her constituents aware of progress is essential, she stressed, since administrative work just doesn’t get people excited. This is especially true at Tandon, where students often feel isolated and neglected compared to their Manhattan counterparts. “There’s definitely a stigma.”
Khonde, through TUSC, has led successful initiatives to introduce a three-credit internship course at Tandon, increase NYU bus service between the campuses, provide feminine hygiene products in bathrooms and post QR codes around Tandon so that students can easily provide immediate feedback or complaints.
I sat in on a recent TUSC meeting at The Hub, a windowless room at 5 Metrotech Center. Khonde had already been here for 20 minutes typing away on her laptop and slurping up some soup from Au Bon Pain. As secretary, she’s responsible for taking attendance, sharing meeting minutes and following up on assigned tasks. It was an important meeting — next week was spirit week at NYU’s Brooklyn outpost, and TUSC was finalizing plans for all the events.
The council covered issues including whether or not to co-sponsor Class Activity Board’s Sophomore Soiree, how to administer a new travel fund for Hackathon participants, the distribution of spirit week T-shirts — Khonde gave me a peek at the design, a trigonometric pun — and the marquee event of the week, the Tandon Gala. Khonde aggressively encouraged everyone in the room to share the event on social media. They had booked food, a DJ and a photobooth at a venue nearby.
“‘TUSC is really killing it this year,’” club advisor Sarah Shields said as she read a text message from a former council president. Everyone in the room beamed, but Shields had even more praise for Khonde.
“She’s been a huge asset,” she said. “Introduced a lot of new initiatives, many with other organizations she’s been a part of on campus.”
Current TUSC president Florence Tong also recognizes her outstanding contributions to the council.
“She is always a go-to when it comes to getting things done, [especially] last-minute,” Tong said.
Khonde does bring extensive prior leadership experience to the council. She formerly served as vice president of service for the Inter-Residence Hall Council, no easy feat for a Brooklyn-based student since all the meetings were on Washington Square. There, she helped organize the New York Dance Marathon and Days of Service, where students would garden in the outer boroughs.
“They named one of the trees after me,” she said with a proud smile. That was nice, Khonde admitted, but she emphasized that the most rewarding part of the role was seeing friendships form between residents as they attended events.
The 25-minute bus or subway ride between NYU’s campuses doesn’t seem to phase Khonde. She was happy to meet me for coffee in the East Village, where she described her work as a project coordinator at NYU IT and its six offices spread across Union Square, Washington Square and Metrotech.
“In the morning, they’ll tell me, ‘OK, you have a meeting here, here and here,’ and I’ll have to plan out my day,” she said.
I asked whether she’s able to deliver tangible results at the IT department since it seems like such an invisible job. She agreed that her projects were mostly back-end, but brought up Multi-Factor Authentication as a change her team helped implement that also impacted the entire NYU community, even though it did not get an entirely positive reception.
“I was frustrated, too, at first,” she said. “It just seemed so annoying.”
But working on the behind-the-scenes issues helped her realize how important the implementation was in keeping student data secure.
While she does her best to represent her constituents in professional settings, she is not short on enthusiasm for her friends’ activities either.
“She shows interest in other people’s passions,” said Shradha Mididaddi, Khonde’s close friend and roommate, recounting a recent instance when Khonde baked banana bread for Mididaddi’s dance team. “There are a handful of cheerleaders in my life and Shriya [is] one of them.”
As for future plans, Khonde is a huge Disney fan and wants to work for the company one day, whether it’s in a corporate office or in the studio to voice a princess.
“It’s always been a dream,” she said, trying to hold back a grin.
But for now, Khonde will head to the New Jersey office of UBS, a Swiss investment bank, to work as a wealth management intern this summer.
“I see her [bringing a] fresh perspective to drive her success,” said Joyel Sequeira, Khonde’s supervisor at NYU IT. “Her personality and efforts fit the [project manager] role well and I can see her integrating her skills to develop her very own managerial style.”
Khonde loves her work but acknowledges some criticisms of the industry. She’s frustrated by the cutthroat competition at so many companies, for example.
“There are a lot of extremely qualified people and everyone’s going for the exact same jobs,” she said.
Representation has also been a noticeable issue everywhere she’s worked. “There can be, like, 16 men in a room and two women,” Khonde recalled of some NYU IT meetings. And the ratio isn’t much better at Tandon, where male students outnumber female students 2-to-1. Still, she has hope.
“Everyone is respectful,” she said. “And in my major specifically, it is pretty balanced. I see potential and I can see change happening.”
After the TUSC meeting, Khonde took me on a quick tour of Tandon’s campus. She was like one of those ubiquitous purple-jacketed admissions ambassadors, but far more personal, since everywhere we went she had a story or a fun fact. Her answers to my questions were often interrupted by friends waving hello or her own input on places we saw.
We walked through the new commuter lounge — created thanks to a TUSC initiative, Khonde bragged — and the MakerSpace Lab before heading over to the cool MAGNET space with its retro video games. Despite not having first-year cohorts, Khonde said, Tandon’s gen-ed classes and two residence halls make it so that everyone becomes friends with each other.
“It’s a very tight-knit community,” she said, a politician unashamedly boasting of her often overshadowed constituency.
Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected] A version of this article appears in the Thursday, March 14, 2019, print edition on Pages 10 and 11. Read more from Washington Square News’ “Up-and-Comers 2019.”