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21 October 2017Last updated
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Abu Dhabi girl using Stanford for social good

Pragya Chawla almost didn’t apply to Stanford; now she’s set to tackle mental health through technology

Shreeja Ravindranathan
24 Aug 2017 | 04:00 pm
  • Pragya Chawla

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo

The student: Pragya Chawla, Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi, alumnus

Off to: Stanford University to study international relations and computer science

A Level subjects: Biology, physics, chemistry and maths

‘I’m very motivated by my service to the world; I believe everything that I’m doing is my rent for being on the planet.’

This is seventeen-year-old Pragya Chawla’s motto; it gives her the agency and drive to undertake complex initiatives and projects.

Those include spearheading an international model United Nations (MUN) conference attended by over 500 people from across the world (it secured the conference a commendation from the UN resident office) and attending conferences at Harvard and The Hague. She launching a mental-health awareness support group in her school and performed over 1,000 hours of community service, fundraising for earthquake and disaster relief and volunteering at hospitals and orphanages in India over summers.

Oh, and teaching herself advanced mathematics and coding online addition to her regular six subjects – twice the recommended amount.

‘The subjects I want to study in college are mathematical and computational science but their school equivalents – further maths and computer science – were not taught at my school. So I [studied] them.’

In Pragya’s words, she’s just a kid who ended up loving her doctor dad’s ‘Indian parent dream that his daughter should pursue computer science. My doctor parents were very supportive of the deviation,’ she says. ‘In fact I was studying so much, my parents had to tell me to chill and be a normal kid and go outside and hang out with friends. These last two years were pure misery – there’s no way to sugar-coat it; I took joy in coffee and learning my subjects.’

While she’s a jack of many trades, Pragya’s aim is to master technological solutions for world problems, from war and international relations (a field her MUN sessions exposed her to), to a cause she’s personally passionate about – mental health awareness.

At age 12, Pragya faced mental health issues, missing a year of her education and changing schools because of bullying. 

‘I went to psychotherapists, but what hit hardest was I couldn’t talk to people my age, because who wants to talk to a kid who is sick all the time? That prompted me to actively spread mental health awareness and train people to listen better, speak better and be more conscious and kind to people. 

‘But hey, I’m not crying about it – so much [good] has come from that.’

For starters, her Extended Project Qualification, which studied the Ethnographic Neurochemistry of Depression – how the anatomy of a depressed person in Japan varies from that of someone in the US or India. Then there was the publication her book of poetry, Window Sills, at 16.

Unlike her peers, Pragya didn’t harbour dreams of attending Ivy League schools or big-name colleges until she approached Hale educational consultancy in September 2016 for guidance on college applications. ‘When [Hale] saw my resume they insisted I must apply to Stanford and pointed out how the school’s initiatives matched my own. I was going to apply to Pomona College – a small liberal arts college in California that was small, humble and had good school spirit. I was scared by [Stanford] and didn’t want to apply.

The fear was conquered by purpose when she realised how a big brand like Stanford would help achieve her goals.

‘Stanford has these initiatives called CS+ Mental Health and CS+ Social Good that develop ways to use computer technology to detect suicidal tendencies in someone’s speech patterns and provide online therapies for people who can’t afford [traditional] mental care.’ Her dedication to the research is such that she declined Dh500,000 in scholarships from University of Southern California and Boston University, choosing instead to stick with Stanford, studied her dad’s copy of Grey’s Anatomy from scratch to understand the brain and taught herself statistical methods.

While the next four years will see the tech world consume her whole, Pragya, who loves post-colonial literature, especially poet Sujata Bhatt, has no plans to abandon her poetry. ‘I feel people get poetry no matter where you’re coming from and as a STEM [science, tech, engineering and maths] major it’s important for me to be aware of the human struggle so I know where to put my efforts in.’

To kids who find school a drag this fall, Pragya’s advice is to ‘take a look at the world around and see the economies that are failing and the people that are starving. The laziness will fade. It’s the privilege and comfort of everyday living that makes you feel demotivated.’

Meanwhile, Pragya doesn’t plan to succumb to laziness, even 10 years down the lane. ‘I’ll be a workaholic in Silicon Valley trying to help a large number of people through a start-up, a non-profit or an MNC [multinational corporation], loving every minute of it.’

Read more: UAE’s smart set and their bright futures

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Shreeja Ravindranathan