Seated on a stool near the back of the recently opened Starbucks in downtown Evanston, ASG president Ani Ajith already seems at home with the title he won in April. Each of the Weinberg junior’s words are punctuated by the horizontally outstretched hand of a campaigning politician. Ajith is fluent in the language of soundbites, possessing a control of words which carries over to his writing, both on his website and in campus publications (including North by Northwestern). He speaks with a quickened pace that is only broken by the occasional “hello” given to passersby he recognizes.
The high volume of “hellos” Ajith gives out shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone familiar with his personal and political goals, which have focused on developing the Northwestern community since his freshman year.
“It’s a vision that I think a lot of people share,” Ajith said. “It’s a vision of a community that’s more engaged with each other — a Northwestern experience in which you don’t feel like there’s spaces off limits to you.” If there’s an Ajith Doctrine, this is it.
His vision is not without a backstory. Born in Bangalore, India, Ajith had lived in Vietnam, Phoenix and Charlotte, before his family settled in Houston six years ago.
“Growing up, I never really had a community to call my own,” Ajith said. “Coming to Northwestern I wanted to find a community that I very much had as much cling to as anyone else. I felt Northwestern would kind of be like a clean slate in that sense.”
ASG Chief of Staff David Harris, who ran against Ajith in this year's ASG presidential election, has a different perspective on the leader's passion after working with him since the two were freshmen.
"He was a bit of a nerd," Harris joked. "The same way most of the Northwestern students are entering freshman year. Just a little bit bookworm, coming to a university with a clear idea of what a cause will look like."
Recognizing the talents of those around him, Ajith became determined to give back to “this thing that is Northwestern.” In the three years since, his résumé has included previous positions such as speaker of the senate, director of outreach for Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development (LEND) and president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
For much of campus, the phrase “One Northwestern” may have become a tired cliché. But for Ajith, it’s still a reality he fights for. He said his relationship with ASG vice president and McCormick junior Alex Van Atta brings the phrase to life.
“Our partnership is kind of an example of what we'd like to encourage throughout campus,” Ajith said. “If an engineer from Ohio can work extremely closely with a poli sci major from Bangalore, India, then clearly we’ve been linking our perspectives well.”
Van Atta was impressed by the then-senator’s involvement and dedication when the two first met at an ASG appreciation dinner hosted by President Schapiro their sophomore year. The duo’s dinner table meetup became a common occurrence during their junior year when the students began hosting regular potlucks at Ani’s apartment for their friends.
“We don’t let the busyness and all the things that we’re facing affect our relationships with other people and each other,” Van Atta says. “We work very closely together on issues that we’re passionate about. But we like to kind of keep that in perspective in what’s really important and why we’re here.”
This isn't a treatment exclusive to Ajith's close friends, Harris says.
"Ani and I began as colleagues, we became rivals, and we're coming full circle again," Harris says. "That really speaks to his ability to remain focused on the important goals, even following what is, by definition, a competition."
What separates Ajith from most others fond of the buzzwords like “community interaction” is the results he's achieved. He attributes the success of the return of Delta Tau Delta and the re-opening of the Deering Library doors, both projects which counted Ajith as a major player, to community-building. The Deering Days committee, known for their eponymous concert-barbeque held during Welcome Week, is also an Ajith brainchild. In its first year, the event featured performers presented by Mayfest as well as headliner Chet Haze, while also incorporating university groups including ASG, the Interfraternity Council, the Residential College Board and the Residence Hall Association. Deering Days president Noah Kane said he hopes more Deering Days activities will build Northwestern’s sense of identity.
“The kind of identity where walking down Sheridan you could say ‘hi’ to anybody because they’re all Northwestern students,” Kane explains. “That’s a connection that we don’t necessarily feel to each other.”
Ajith's leadership style is largely the result of his focus on community. He never uses the word "my" when discussing his presidency, opting for the pronoun "our." The president is clear in his desire to lead by example, hoping that similar engagement will encourage change throughout campus.
"It's certainly a loftier vision," Ajith says. "If we're able to — as ASG and as a community — provide spaces for people to come together from different communities...then our experiences are going to be enriched."
Van Atta says he thinks the duo's true strength lies in how naturally the two balance each other out.
“We compliment each other very well,” Van Atta said. “His style of leading is very big picture....I have a really keen eye for detail, and logistics, and trying to connect the dots.”
Ajith said he hopes next year will allow him to set basis for some of these grander goals, mainly the issue of mental health on campus, which he said he feels “personally responsible for.”
“It’s not just resources through CAPS,” Ajith said. “It’s the culture here. Are we looking out for each other enough? Am I looking out enough for my fellow students?”
Still, when reflecting on his laundry list of projects, Ajith takes on a more sobered, realistic tone.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve all the problems,” Ajith said. “I think we’re going to make progress on a lot of them.”