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The Mittal Institute’s interns come from diverse places and backgrounds, yet each share the drive and ambition to serve their communities and perform research to advance the greater good of our increasingly linked world. Their unique experiences and skills have been invaluable to our team, and we’d like to take the time to recognize and thank our graduating seniors. Although they will not be walking, it is more important than ever to share their stories and accomplishments.

Introducing: Alex Indira Sanyal! A Boston native, Alex will be graduating this month with a Masters in Design Studies (MDes) in Critical Conservation from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. We caught up with Alex to learn more about her experience as a graduate student at Harvard, and how her graduate research and life as a student have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What brought you to Harvard?

While at Bryn Mawr College, I studied the Growth and Structure of Cities, an interdisciplinary major that challenges students to understand the dynamic relationship of urban spatial organization to politics, economics, cultures, and societies. During my four years, I took a series of courses that allowed me to explore identity in the context of urban culture and society, comparative literature, architectural surveys, cultural psychology, economics, environmental justice, and media studies.

My undergraduate thesis was thus a culmination of my interests, which were themselves a culmination of my particular positionality and curiosities. Titled, Creating Community: A study of the form and function of Islamic community spaces in Philadelphia, my work looked at identity, specifically as it pertains to religion, and how religion — in this case, Islam — is expressed, practiced, and perceived in cities. The process of researching for and writing my undergraduate thesis raised more questions than I could answer, particularly how the politics within a city intersected with socio-religious identity conflicts and how one might begin to read that in the built environment. How did religious institutions play into the city’s identity politics? How had so many religious spaces transcended time to unite communities during political and social unrest?

These questions led me to pursue a research assistantship under political scientist Professor Devesh Kapur, at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at UPenn. Professor Kapur’s work focuses on human capital, national and international public institutions, and the ways in which local-global linkages affect political and economic change in India. His expertise, combined with my curiosity for reading these types of changes through the built environment over time, provided a fruitful partnership and allowed me to insert myself into the intellectual field of Indian cultural and spatial politics in ways that I wasn’t able to in college, given the absence of a South Asian studies department.

This job fostered an opportunity for me to develop my skills in advanced research and engage with the academic community through conferences, events, and fieldwork, all of which ignited a passion within me to revisit my interest in urban identity through the intersection of politics and space in graduate work. I ultimately chose this program at Harvard because it is specifically housed within a design school that is pedagogically oriented around the built environment as central to any interrogation of the human condition. Being at Harvard also brought me to the Mittal Institute, allowing me to continue my work on India in a really exciting way.

What were your initial thoughts on Harvard and its community?

Harvard had always felt like a very intriguing and mysterious place. Growing up in Boston and attending a high school on the outskirts of Harvard Square, I was always around the campus and viewed it as a competitive, overwhelming environment, meant for the best of the best. When it came time for me to apply to college, I never even thought about attending because I wanted to get away from home and out of the competitive Boston bubble. However, once I decided to come back for my Masters, I realized how creative and talented the community here is — especially in the graduate schools. I feel pushed to do my best and be my best here.

If you could go back in time to your first semester at Harvard, what advice would you give yourself? What would you tell incoming students?

If I could go back, I would definitely tell myself that it’s impossible to take advantage of all of the opportunities that Harvard has, and that if you try to do it all, you will feel burnt out by the end of your first semester. Just being a full-time student is a lot of work, let alone having a job, attending all the events, and navigating a new social circle. It’s alright to take things one day at a time and to prioritize your mental health and wellness over trying to check off all of these “boxes.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your studies and your time at Harvard? How have you adapted your research accordingly?

The reality of COVID-19 has hit like a tidal wave, knocking over everything I once considered stable. I’m currently finishing up my Masters in Design Studies at Harvard University, focusing on “Critical Conservation,” in which we look at the social impacts of conservation work and question hegemonic notions of history and heritage. A pandemic such as this has me thinking a lot about the future of our cities and communities … how will we conserve any thread of our old normal if and when this dies down? How can our “new normal” strive to break some of the prejudices that we’ve taken so much for granted? Is there a way for us to use this as an opportunity to reevaluate and re-imagine a system that doesn’t privilege some of us (able-bodied, healthy, often young, and financially stable) over others?

My everyday routine is actually quite beautiful, albeit daunting. I’ve escaped to Cape Cod where I am working on my thesis for most of the day. Every day at 5:30 PM, I stop what I’m doing, no matter where I am, and go out for an hour and a half long walk through the woods and to the beach. It’s both enchanting and frightening — the beauty and serenity of the sand, the sea, the trees, entering into a beautiful spring without the usual burdens of human interaction and abuse. I’m riddled with a feeling of immense privilege … how lucky I am to have something, somewhere to escape to, while others are confined and dying in makeshift emergency rooms. I feel helpless but also healthier than I have in a while. It’s amazing what 10 hours of sleep, regular exercise, and relatively stress-free writing environments have done for my mental health.

I’ve been working on my thesis, >Power in/and Preservation: Understanding Loss in a [Post]Colonial Calcutta, daily, trying to produce a critical and influential piece of work … throwing myself into an entirely separate intellectual world, the world of conflicted nationalism and heritage preservation in Kolkata — an escape, of sorts. At night I’ve been watching old Bengali films with my parents — both aged and anxious about what their futures hold, but it allows us to spend time together and to leave this pandemic-ridden world for the nostalgia of the past. I’ve learned so much about them during this time, and may never get this much extended time with them again.

How will you continue your work after Harvard?

At this time, I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for me. I know that I am interested in pursuing my research on Conflicted Nationalism in Calcutta, but am also open to future comparative work with other former colonial capital cities, perhaps in the Middle East, so as to merge my two regional and linguistic interests. I’ve also been exploring more visual representations of my research, and have been working for a few weeks on a short film addendum to go along with my written thesis — breaking the norms of the passive museum and trying to incorporate the city and people into active reflection. Hopefully, the next year provides opportunities for me to explore these new angles, once all settles down with the current health and economic climate.


☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.