Newman Civic Fellow: Priya Varanasi Recognized for Committing to Change in Local Community

by, Alexa Schmidt, A&E Editor

Known to many people as a friendly face around campus, sophomore Priya Varanasi has been named a Newman Civic Fellow. A double major in peace studies and political science, Varanasi has received this prestigious fellowship that recognizes community-oriented students who are committed to change and solving public problems. 

The fellowship officially starts in September of 2020, with a national convention in Boston in November, and ends in May 2021. Varanasi was nominated by David Witzling, Ph.D., and Margaret Groarke, Ph.D, professors of the English and political science departments, respectively. 

“When I was nominated, I really had no idea what it was and was just honored that I was given the opportunity,” Varanasi said. “What I knew on first glance is that it’s for people who are of course civically engaged, and are looking to better their communities and government. I was so honored to receive the award because I think one of the biggest questions many of us have to face is to what scale and what reach… how far reaching do I want my work to be? And it just happened for me that I got to go into politics for a local campaign starting with a local election in the Bronx in Westchester,” Varanasi said. 

Varanasi worked on New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi’s campaign in 2018. The Bronx and New York City became Varanasi’s focus, and her commitment to the community includes the area surrounding the college at the local level. 

“I’m not sure what the fellowship, [at large], how they actually define community, but for me, local is what it’s come to me,” Varanasi said. 

Varanasi’s job at the State Senate has offered her a new perspective when it comes to traveling and navigating the different neighborhoods in the Bronx. 

“When I was working on Senator Biaggi’s race when she was campaigning, we spoke to commuters at train stations, which was really my first way of understanding how to connect with strangers and talk about issues that are important to you, and that you think will be important to them,” Varanasi said. “And just getting to know New York, just commuting from Inwood and then taking the Bx12 [bus], all the way out east,” she said.

Varanasi continued. 

“I go to the fifth precinct Community Council meetings most months so getting to know police officers in the area, getting to know the precincts that people will go to, the precinct council meetings, the people who go to community board meetings, I think that’s how my job has impacted me is actually knowing, just learning who our elected officials are because it was relevant to me and my job,” Varanasi said. “Many of us don’t know who our electeds are and what they do for us. So many of us don’t know what a community board does. I learned those really fundamental aspects of local politics through actually being part of it and doing work,” she said. 

When it comes to Manhattan College’s campus, Varanasi has recently gotten into activist work surrounding issues of students who commute and students of color on campus. 

“I’m making sure that we have resources to feel connected to each other and actually feel included,” Varanasi said. “I’ve recently had a lot on my mind about the way we name buildings and actually how to create a space where residents and commuting students get to better connect with each other because I feel that that’s actually lacking right now on our campus. And so often that difference actually means where our school actually runs the gamut in terms of socio economic background, not actually having students of those different socioeconomic backgrounds connecting and so that’s that’s sort of been my focus on campus right now,” she said.

Varanasi, like many others, appreciates the work of the Multicultural Center and the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center, both located in Kelly Commons. 

“I’ve been looking to get to know faculty members who are activists themselves and that’s how I’ve started now, because for a long time, my work was really just campaigns and then working at my job for the State Senate,” Varanasi said. 

Varanasi continued.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity [the fellowship] provided in terms of mentorship,” Varanasi said. “I was really honored to be nominated by Dr. Witzling, Dr. Groakre, and I was honored that I got to sort of pick them and see them as my mentors in this really official way. So I think that’s also one of the most important opportunities that actually brought me to the fellowship is just acknowledging that relationship that I get to have with my professors,” Varanasi said.