Siraj Sindhu is a testament to Amherst College’s ability to change its students. Throughout his four years at Amherst, Sindhu found himself challenging his identity, philosophy and priorities at every turn.
When asked to describe the impact that Sindhu had made on her life, his friend MacKenzie Kugel ’19 said, “Siraj is an extremely kind human being, and his sensibility about the way he lives his life is like no one I’ve ever met. He’s completely himself in a way that I haven’t ever encountered before. He’s authentic, creative and caring. He expresses himself beautifully in everything he does, whether that’s art, music or conversation.”
Early Life in a Small Town
Born to Punjabi immigrants who had come to America in the 1990s, Sindhu was raised in upstate New York. Living what he calls an unexciting life in “a town that had seen its best days in the early 1900s,” Sindhu spent most of his time reading philosophy and poetry. “I was raised with a Punjabi work ethic, valuing individual and moral responsibility,” Sindhu said.
He was told to be proud of his status as a Punjabi and as a Sunni Muslim, two labels that would have a massive impact on his early life. Relative to the rest of his family, Sindhu “grew up whitewashed,” living in an American town that had virtually no other people of color and surrounded by professional conservatives.
“My entire extended family is made up of bourgeois professional conservatives, and my attitudes towards that were slightly more complicated during my childhood because of my upbringing in small- town America without any other people like me,” Sindhu said.
“A lot of my time at Amherst has been interrogating who I am and what makes me who I am,” Sindhu said. In particular, Sindhu found himself interrogating his racial and religious identities. He was raised as a proud Pakistani and Sunni Muslim, with all of the trappings and ceremonies that came with those labels, such as fasting or attending mosque.
“At Amherst, I’ve learned skills that have allowed me to contextualize those experiences into broader social patterns,” Sindhu said.
Eventually, the identities that Sindhu had grown up claiming became more limiting in describing how he came to understand himself. He has begun to think of himself in a more multi-faceted way and has attempted to broaden his identifications as much as possible.
“I believe identities are useful for identifying along lines of oppression, but I find myself reaching for more universal identities,” Sindhu said.
In terms of academics, Sindhu found himself questioning his identities through philosophy, studying concepts such as historical materialism and enlightenment humanism. Eventually deciding to double major in English and Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought, Sindhu has a singular sensitivity to the way the individual relates to society.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the way in which enlightenment humanism posited a kind of ideal for the human, which was based off a 18th century model of the European white man,” he said. “Through scientific studies of societies, other groups became measured by deviations from that norm. Since Amherst, I’ve tried to flatten those differences. I’ve been caught up in ego minimalization and have been trying to limit my use of identifying terms.”
His hesitation to embrace identities narrowly ironically resulted in him standing out from the crowd. When The Amherst Student asked different departments for their recommendations for seniors to profile in the Commencement Issue, LJST professor Adam Sitze, with whom Sindhu has worked throughout his Amherst career, wrote, “Without question, I would recommend the one and only Siraj Sindhu. There’s no way you could do this section without featuring him.”
This distinctiveness transcends the penchant he has for climbing trees or his sharp dressing, a style his friends jokingly refer to as “twee,” which misleadingly suggests that he may be a professor. More than his stature and academic prowess, however, Sindhu’s confident curiosity shines through.
“On a campus marked by division, Sindhu seemed to trespass happily on the boundaries that preserved unhealthy social spaces,” said political science professor Andrew Poe.
Off the Beaten Path
When Sindhu first arrived at Amherst, he was eager to jump into the fray and get involved with all sorts of extracurricular activities. He became involved in Amherst’s ultimate frisbee team, AC Voice and the AAS Senate. He lived in Marsh his sophomore year and was a Coffee Haus regular — reading his poetry and occasionally singing. This changed after spending a semester in Berlin during his junior year.
He returned to Marsh, where he covered his room in film photography from his trip, but living in Berlin changed the way he encountered the world,
“It opened my eyes a lot as to what kind of lives were off the beaten path,” Sindhu said.
In Berlin, Sindhu found himself surrounded by young people from the Middle East, Africa and former Soviet states. He met students, artists and activists, many of whom felt for whatever reason that they lacked a place in society.
“I came back from Berlin wanting to do my own thing. I had a change in priorities and wanted to do things by myself or with smaller groups of people,” he said. “Instead of running from meeting to meeting, I try to foster a relationship with nature, art and those around me. It is a far more meditative life than what I had before.”
Sindhu’s change in priorities was apparent to those around him. As he shrugged off many of the burdens that he had been shouldering back on campus, many began to see what was truly inside him.
“A lot of people have asked me if he’s ‘fake.’ The short answer to that is ‘no,’ but the long answer is a lot more simple than you might think,” Sindhu’s friend Bryan Zayatz ’18 said. “I think that he just constantly tries to conform himself. He always acts as though no one was watching him, so you might catch him randomly singing or dancing. The thing is, it is not an act. He genuinely feels that way.”
Putting Theory into Practice
Perhaps the best way to express Sindhu’s new priorities can be found in his living situation. He spent his senior year living in the Humphries House, or as it is more commonly known, the Zu. In this dorm, students have the responsibility to work together to maintain the house. They cook meals for one another, order food and organize house events collectively.
His abroad experience compelled Sindhu to explore himself unfettered by his context. Simultaneously, he encouraged others to similarly examine themselves, too.
“Siraj will always engage you and ask questions in a way that others rarely do. He tries to empathize with you and connect to you on a personal level,” Aaron Cooper-Lob ’17 said.
“Amherst College has always focused on the intellectual,” Sindhu said. “The mandate of the liberal arts college is to bring together the brightest minds from across the nation. While all that is great, doing cooperative living at the Zu means that you don’t just care for your fellow students as intellectual beings who come together in the library or the classroom. You acknowledge their physical existence and take steps to physically care for them.”
Sindhu now leads his life uninhibited by what had previously held him back. He rejects being painted into a corner, has his priorities in order and genuinely cares about the physical and mental well being of those around him.
Sindhu epitomizes self-critique on both a personal and a societal level. He is a model for other students not just to consider this decontextualized reflection but also to put it into actionable steps.