A Service Spirit

By Marcia Faye
A Service Spirit Image
Utsav Gandhi (CHE 2nd year) gardening at Benton House in Bridgeport
Photo: Michael Goss

Utsav Pankaj Gandhi (CHE 2nd year) seems an old soul at 20.

With his calm demeanor and constant smile, one could believe that he has discovered the secret to the well-lived life. Actually, Gandhi believes he has. For him it is the faith-based philosophy that he was born into in Mumbai, India, and which inspires him daily.

“We are Jains,” he says about the ancient religion-Jainism-he and his family practice. “Two of the aspects we as a group follow are making donations and doing community service.”

Jains adhere to nonviolence and avoid harming all life forms-human, animal, plant, and even those too small to be seen by the naked eye. Gandhi recalls that from an early age he, his twin brother, and his parents would regularly visit cowsheds and animal welfare centers in Mumbai simply to spend time with the animals housed there.

In grade 11, he assumed his first service leadership role as president of the Red Ribbon Club, a student initiative to help spread HIV/AIDS awareness in Mumbai.

“We went to public beaches to hand out condoms, performed educational street plays, and visited homes with HIV-infected children. That’s when I really realized how doing service could contribute to the growth of an individual,” he says.

After Gandhi came to the United States in August 2010 to attend IIT, he discovered the many service-learning opportunities both on campus and in the surrounding communities. In spring 2011, Gandhi was selected to become a community ambassador of the One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) project. The event aimed to improve understanding among the various faiths and cultures within the Chicago metropolitan area as well as to stimulate community action. The OCON program was featured in a New York Times article with comments from Gandhi.

Along with Shimer College student Mohini Lal, Gandhi coordinated a project benefiting the Bridgeport neighborhood's Benton House community center as part of IIT's third annual Big Event day of community service. The pair received a $2,000 grant from OCON and enlisted a student crew to build a 10-foot garden bed, plant vegetable seeds, repaint program spaces, create murals, run a food drive, and collect donations for youth programs.

“I was impressed by Utsav’s immense power and leadership to rally 100 students to do service on a Saturday morning and afternoon,” says Kristina Tendilla, Benton House community outreach and civic engagement director. “I was also so impressed by his openness to sculpt service projects to the needs of Benton House and our community.”

This spring, Gandhi once again participated in The Big Event and also served as the fundraising chair for the student organization Alternative Spring Break (ASB), helping the team defray the cost of traveling to Valdosta, Ga., to work with Habitat for Humanity. Much as Gandhi-who hopes for a career at the United Nations-values his formative years in service, he says that a more recent event created an indelible memory.

“At last year’s ASB, one of my primary jobs was attaching Tyvek waterproofing paper to houses. The lady who was going to be living in one of the houses was working alongside me. At the end of our project, she told me that once she moved in, whenever it rained, she would think of us students and all of the hard work we did,” says Gandhi. “That really impacted me.”