As the eighth oldest institution for higher learning in the United States, Rutgers is celebrating its 250th anniversary on November 10, 2016. To celebrate this monumental milestone, I Am Rutgers will be featuring Rutgers’ most involved and accomplished students in a new series, “250 for 250.” This year-long series will serve as a reflection of Rutgers’ diverse student body and status as a premier national research university.
In recent years, and during this election year in particular, issues like climate change and creating renewable resources have been at the forefront of our global and national conversations. Ajay Kashi, a senior studying chemical engineering and physics, has conducted research on renewable energy in world-renowned schools like the University of Southern California and Columbia University. Originally from California, Ajay has always had a specific interest in climate change and has gone a step further by trying to tackle this problem through his involvement both at Rutgers and on an international level.
“We need to deal with this problem globally and start to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reverse climate change if possible, but ultimately figure out the next replacement for fossil fuels to drive our economy. So all these things became motivating factors for me to start pursuing hydrogen as the next fuel source. But I didn’t really want to stop there. So I started to develop my own projects in my lab. I got to present at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers National Meeting last year and I won first place.”
Ajay is currently the President of both Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) at Rutgers. EWB works to implement sustainable community driven projects all around the world, and improve the quality of life in communities that need it. The Rutgers chapter works on water supply projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Guatemala, as well as a local project in Camden, NJ. Ajay was careful to note that at its foundation, EWB is made up of a bunch of diverse students with unique skill sets motivated by the desire to help communities in need.
“What I’ve realized over the past 3 years is that Engineers Without Borders isn’t just engineering. We’re doing so much more than that. We need people outside of engineering who can contribute knowledge in public health, microfinance…we’re always looking for really strong writers, people who have marketing strengths and people who care about the cause and are willing to learn something new.”
Just this past January, Ajay and other EWB members were able to travel to a village in Kenya for three weeks. During that short period of time, they built and repaired 7 rainwater systems, launched an education initiative to teach children about clean water and found a location in the community to drill a well.
As a leader, Ajay remains cautious with his word choice and overall mentality when it comes to community service. He believes that we need to stop using words like ‘help’ and ‘fix,’ because service is mutually beneficial.
“If I’m helping or fixing you, I see an inherent problem and therefore I see myself as better than you. When we say that we’re either serving them or partnering with them, you’re immediately saying we’re equals in this together and we’re doing this for both of us…avoiding that whole savior complex idea and really driving home the message of sustainable community development.”
When he’s not busy finding a way to efficiently split water molecules and produce renewable hydrogen, or traveling to Kenya to set up clean water systems, he can be found playing the Punjabi North Indian folk drum for the Rutgers University Dhol Effect. The Dhol Effect combines top 40s American hits and Indian music and has performed at many events on campus.
Research, academics and community involvement aside, Ajay maintains that the greatest challenge he has faced thus far was during his junior year when his mom’s breast cancer returned after being in remission.
“I had 10,000 things going on and with her in the background, I felt so guilty and selfish. So my junior year I decided to commute. I wanted to spend more time with my parents and figure stuff out. And it was actually that year that I took on more leadership positions. I always felt like I was disappointing someone.”
On top of commuting to school, Ajay was taking 20 credits, serving the e-board of four different organizations and conducting 20 hours of research per week. Every day, he would arrive on campus at 7:00 a.m. and leave at 2:00 a.m. He had never felt so much social or physical anxiety in his life, and it started to negatively impact his health. Fortunately, his mom is now cancer free, leaving him with a few pieces of advice applicable to any student at Rutgers.
“Find your support group. When you find yourself in a university this big, you’re forced to grow up really fast; you’re forced to mature quickly. If you don’t have the friends to help you at your darkest moments, this university will quite literally swallow you up, so don’t let yourself get to that point.”
Ajay has been combining his passions to do amazing work in the fields of engineering, physics and community development for the last three years. Seeing some of his dreams and goals come to fruition was satisfying in its own right, but having these achievements recognized through Cap and Skull, a senior honors society, was the icing on the cake.
“When you commit yourself to something and are working toward it, you have a goal in your head that you want to achieve personally. You have a goal to give back to a larger body of students, but you don’t necessarily see how your goal aligns with the bigger picture. I can take the last 3 years of what I have accomplished here and combine it with all these other amazing skills that everyone in Cap and Skull has. We can use what we’ve learned to help students not only find what they’re passionate about, but figure out how they can align their passions with the bigger picture.”
Following graduation, Ajay aims to pursue a Ph.D. in renewable energy so he can continue his research (and probably save the world). But before going back to school, he wants to combine his love for traveling, non-profit work and engineering.
“Non-profit work is something that’s really special to me and when it comes to traveling, I want to implement engineering solutions where I’m taking what I learned in the classroom and implementing it abroad.”
Ajay leaves us with a few words of wisdom as a seasoned senior with some extraordinary experiences under his belt.
“I try to do a lot. I try to get as many students as inspired as I was by students who came before me. But if there is one unifying factor I would say that I’m passionate about helping other people. I’m passionate about helping people see the bigger picture because every day, I see students or friends that are so wrapped up in one or two aspects of their lives, but don’t really get to see how it connects with everyone else around them. Whether that community is the global community, or that group of friends you’ve had, or your family, never forget those things. Never take those things for granted. Get involved with an organization, find out why you want to be involved in that organization and do it because you care.”