It was October, 2014. Nisha Gandhi, 17 years old at the time, was preparing to submit her college applications. But yet instead of working on those applications or spending her afternoon outside in the crisp autumn air, she was shut up inside. And she liked it.
The Piscataway, New Jersey classroom was buzzing with activity. Most of the eighth grade students suffered some sort of disability, or required an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Gandhi bounced on her lanky legs from student to student, her long hair swishing behind her as she moved. She was helping with their personal narratives, teaching them how to write expository nonfiction.
Gandhi took a seat next to a 13-year-old boy. He paused for a second, and turned to her.
“Miss Gandhi, why am I learning how to do this?” he asked. “We know I’m going to end up in jail.”
Gandhi froze. She looked at him with her big brown eyes, trying to read him, trying to process what he had said.
Words. Words were the next thing that came to mind. They spewed from her mouth, seeped from her ears, trying desperately to get out. Talking a mile a minute, her voice jumped an octave and she began to talk louder, as she so often did when she was passionately trying to make a point.
For 10 minutes she fought for him, argued for all his positive qualities, urgently trying to repaint the picture of his future that seemed to be permanently imprinted in his mind.
At the end of the day, she made her way to her car. As she drove home on the Central New Jersey roads that she knew so well, she began to spew something else. Not words this time. She was done with words. This time, it was tears.
This interaction with her eighth grade student was the first time that Gandhi, now 20, had to really fight for someone else. She learned this determination and drive from her parents. They did everything in their power to better their own lives, and the lives of their children. Gandhi learned to fight for herself throughout her childhood. And now, she has dedicated her life to fighting for others.
The Gandhis well established life was not handed to them. It was earned. After immigrating from India, they had to battle their way up from the very bottom.
Gandhi’s mother, Nandita Gandhi, moved to the United States when she was 21 years old, just after she had gotten her bachelor’s degree. Her father had been working tirelessly in the country for several years, sending money back to his family in India so they could afford to join him in the United States. When she moved, she knew little English. She wanted to continue her schooling, but couldn’t afford it. She entered straight into the work force as a cashier, as her bachelor’s degree held little value in the United States. She would discover that life as an immigrant was not an easy task.
“As an immigrant, no matter how many opportunities you're given, you always have to work a little harder to prove yourself and prove that you deserve to be in the country,” Nandita explained.
Her family jumped around, from Seattle to Queens, before finally settling in central New Jersey, where Nandita would remain.
Gandhi’s father, Tushar Gandhi, got his master’s degree in India. After working in Abu Dhabi temporarily, he moved to the United States and settled in New Jersey for a short time. However, it was enough time for Tushar to meet Nandita. According to Gandhi, they fell head over heels in love. Tushar gave up a job in California, and settled in Piscataway, New Jersey, so they could start a life together.
They welcomed their first child and only daughter into the world on December 15, 1996. However, the newfound happiness of parenthood was short lived and soon transformed into fear and worry a mere six months later.
Gandhi, it seems, was born with a heart condition called TAPVR. TAPVR, or total anomalous pulmonary venous return, is a heart disease that affects the pulmonary veins. Blood containing oxygen is abnormally routed into the right atrium, which usually only receives blood without oxygen. The right side of the heart becomes overworked from pumping the extra blood. Oftentimes, veins become blocked, which causes a backup of blood in the lungs. It is also common for blood leaving the heart to have lower levels of oxygen ( Philadelphia).
Only six months on this planet, and she was already on the operating table, chest cut open, her fate in the hands of strangers. Nandita recalled just how terrifying it was for her as a mother.
“My little girl was always strong. We were scared, understandably, but I trusted God and trusted Nisha's strength so I knew she would make it through. Her surgeon was one of the best in the nation and we were doing everything that was still in our power,” she said. “It was scary, knowing that we could lose her in a split second, but there was nothing we could do but keep hope.”
That story, that surgery, is Gandhi’s motivation, her drive; it is because of this that she wants to fight for others and make a difference in their lives.
“So when I was 6 months old I had open heart surgery, and I always say that I think that’s why my soul inherently wants to change the world, because the world could have taken me then and it chose not to, so I feel I owe it to the world to give back,” Gandhi said.
But before Gandhi could fight for or make a change in the lives of others, she had to fight for herself. Growing up, there were things she didn’t quite understand and to her, they seemed strange and sometimes unfair.
Gandhi grew up bilingual, and as a child, would speak both English and her mother tongue Gujarati interchangeably. Her teachers were confused, worried she didn’t speak English. But young Gandhi simply didn’t understand that most people didn’t know Gujarati like she did.
There were other things that were hard for her to comprehend. Holidays were difficult for Gandhi, because in India, there is no gift-giving holiday. Some Indian-American families celebrated Christmas to appease their confused children, but the Gandhis did not.
The major Hindu holiday is Diwali, and celebrations can oftentimes last for a week. But the Piscataway school system followed the New Jersey state calendar, so during those days of celebration, Indian children had to attend school. Gandhi struggled with this as a child, and still does to this day. However unfair it may seem, she understands that sometimes she must sacrifice her culture for her education. But that has never made it easy.
“I get it because I’m in the religious minority but at the same time it’s hard because I still have half my family in India and I see on social media that they’re all celebrating,” Gandhi said.
As Gandhi has fought through the years to be understood, she can feel her culture slowly slipping away. She knows deep down her parents are disappointed, but feels they understand that she is becoming her own person.
“At their core they both really want me to keep my Indian culture, but at the same time they understand that I’m growing up as an American,” Gandhi said. “I don’t really want my culture to die off, but it’s harder and harder the more generations removed you become from the country.”
But even though Gandhi has been faced with challenges, from her health to cultural differences, she has still managed to strive. As a child, she was always very ambitious. In second grade, she wanted to be the president of the United States. In fourth grade, she wanted to be a criminal lawyer because she was angry and frustrated with the injustices of the legal system. Eventually she switched her interest to education, but never lost her drive. Throughout all of her lofty dreams, she had support.
“[My parents] never said no, they never said, ‘no, you can’t do that’ … so I think having that support all the time really helped, it wasn’t in my blood that I couldn’t do something,” Gandhi said.
Nandita too, expressed that she never wanted to discourage Gandhi from achieving her goals. As an immigrant she views the US as a country with limitless possibility, and hopes for her daughter to view it the same way.
“My husband and I always worked hard and focused on our kids because we wanted to give them the resources to achieve all their dreams here,” she said. “We've always believed that this is a country of opportunity and we always knew that Nisha would grow up to do great things.”
As Gandhi aged, she continued to fight for herself. But she also began to fight for and better the lives of others, something that became her professional focus.
Her junior and senior years of high school, she was a teaching assistant for students with disabilities and IEPs. One student, Jessica Pepe, had Gandhi as an English teaching assistant when she was in eighth grade. Although Gandhi helped with writing and vocabulary, she was also simply someone who cared about her students’ well-being.
“Looking back, without her as a guide during that year, my whole outlook on school and my future would have been greatly different than what it is today,” Pepe said. “She always told me to speak up, introduce myself, get involved, and never lose hope or faith in what is going on in my life.”
At Quinnipiac University, where Gandhi created her own major of education policy, she has been a Peer Catalyst, similar to a teaching assistant, and an orientation leader, she is the president of the Honors Leadership Board and of the College of the Arts and Sciences Student Council. She was a campaign intern for democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson. She was a policy intern at the New Jersey Department of Education.
Although undoubtedly Gandhi wishes she could help everyone and do everything, recently she has directed her attention to one particular topic. It drives most of her research and career goals and will continue to do so for some time.
With the executive order recently announced to end DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, immigration continues to be a controversial topic. As a first-generation American and a daughter of immigrants, Gandhi is bothered and offended when people around her voice negative opinions on immigration.
“It’s hard for me to hear that narrative, knowing that if immigrants were banned from the country, I wouldn’t be in the country,” she said.
DACA encapsulates the major themes that Gandhi wants to fight for in education policy. Her goal is to make higher education more accessible for everyone, whether or not they plan to obtain it. Currently, only 18 states grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Three states prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, and two states do not even allow undocumented immigrants to enroll at their public universities (“Undocumented).
Gandhi strives to change this, because she knows that most children who are undocumented had no choice in coming here. She doesn’t think that they should be punished for decisions their parents made. But most importantly, she hates the stigma that accompanies the term “undocumented immigrant.”
“We don’t take into consideration each person’s value, we just want to put this broad notion that undocumented people are terrorizing the country when in fact, most of them aren’t,” Gandhi said.
As much as Gandhi wants to change the world, she also understands that she needs to start small. Gandhi loves the phrase “think global, act local.” After the 2016 election, she has come to the realization that the best place for her to start making a difference is right at home.
“I think if you can impact local communities, you’re still changing lives,” she said. “I might not be able to change the country’s whole education policy on something, but if I can change one county’s or if I can change one state’s, that is a whole state of kids who will go through the public school system knowing something different than what they had before.”
Because Gandhi has spent so much time fighting for herself and her future, she now knows what it takes to help others and make a difference. Alison Saffos, Gandhi’s high school English teacher, knows without a doubt that Gandhi will excel at all that she does.
“She knows her worth, and she will not let anyone belittle or devalue her,” Saffos said. “And if her confidence and determination cannot be shaken, then nothing can stop her from changing the world.”
1. Philadelphia, The Children's Hospital of. “Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return (TAPVR).” The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 25 Mar. 2014, www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/total-anomalous-pulmonary-venous-return-tapvr.
2. “Undocumented Student Tuition: Overview.” National Conference of State Legislators, 29 Oct. 2015, www.ncsl.org/research/education/undocumented-student-tuition-overview.aspx.