Rutgers Senior Helps Lead First Student Organization Dedicated to Ancient Jainism Religion
Raised under the principles of Jainism, Harshita Jain wanted the ancient Indian religion to be integral to her college experience. When she arrived at Rutgers–New Brunswick in 2018, the Honors College senior found a strong Jain community.
“Having a well-knit community like this one supported me in ways I did not know I would need,” she said. Jain learned from others how to integrate Jain teachings into her daily life and developed lifelong friendships.
By the end of her first year, the group became an officially recognized student association on campus. As a sophomore, Jain organized social gatherings and discussions, as well as volunteer outreach efforts. The pandemic then curbed activities for more than a year.
“Going home during the pandemic helped me realize the importance of surrounding myself with people of similar values and in a similar phase of life as myself, because no one else could better understand the feeling of finding how faith fits into the life I want to lead,” Jain said. Since campus reopened to students in September, “we’ve been creating that community again,” said Jain, who became one of the group’s three co-presidents.
Predating Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism holds nonviolence as one of its primary tenets, reflecting the belief that all living things have souls. Jain is a common name among Jain followers, as is Shah, she explained. The religion, which has roughly 5 million followers worldwide, was a major influence on Mahatma Gandhi as he developed the nonviolent resistance practices he employed in South Africa and during India’s independence movement, which later inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
The presence of the Jain community has been growing at Rutgers. The biomedical engineering major with a business administration minor was thrilled when Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences announced in January it was launching a graduate program in Jainism – the first of its kind at an East Coast university.
Jain chose Rutgers–New Brunswick in large part because it is close to her temple, the Jain Center of New Jersey in Franklin Township, and her home in North Edison. “My family has always been my number one support system,” said Jain, who has two younger siblings.
Jain was a baby when her family left Bangalore, India and moved to New Jersey. The 21-year-old is fluent in Hindi, can read and write Gujurati, and understands Marwadi, the language spoken in Rajasthan, the Indian state where both sides of her family are from.
As a first-year student, Jain participated in Rutgers’ service-learning spring break trip to Washington D.C., learning about the root causes of homelessness and volunteering at a homeless shelter and food distribution center. “It was one of the most impactful experiences of my life,” she said.
Jain used the experience to develop workshops for students to explore homelessness and come up with solutions. She organized an event for fellow members of the Rutgers Honors Engineering Council to discuss homelessness while making blankets for children in need.
Jain’s role as a leader in her community goes far beyond Rutgers. She also serves as director of education for the 10,000-member Young Jains of America, where she took the concept of addressing homelessness nationwide. Through 20 events, members of the youth-led nonprofit created nearly 50 blankets while brainstorming solutions to homelessness, she said. “The experience gave me ownership of making change,” she said. “I’m really proud of being able to make things happen.”
Her other roles at Rutgers have included serving as a resident assistant her sophomore year, which taught her how to manage conflicts, help students cope with stressors and develop confidence and comfort initiating conversations. “It forced me out of my comfort zone,” she said. In addition, Jain is an Honors College ambassador, giving tours to new and prospective students.
Jain said her Rutgers experiences “have helped me understand who I am. That’s the biggest thing I’ll be leaving with.” Over the past four years, “I’ve learned what I like and don’t like, what I want to put my time and energy into.”
One of her favorite classes was the “Honors College Forum,” in which she and fellow first-year students planned a socially responsible, sustainable business of buying blemished produce from farmers to make affordable fruit spreads for communities lacking in food options. For her senior design project, she and her teammates developed a wheelchair tray that is portable and easy to install.
Rutgers School of Engineering Assistant Dean Jean Patrick Antoine became a mentor after he invited Jain to help organize an event for Young Engineers Day her first year. Since then, Jain has regularly consulted with Antoine about her academic and professional journeys, and the two share reading lists.
“Harshita is a poised, articulate, and focused academic warrior,” said Antoine, adviser to the Rutgers Honors Engineering Council, a group headed by Jain. She is eager to bounce ideas off others to improve them, and takes a holistic approach to developing solutions, he said. “She uses engineering to solve social problems and brings her understanding of social issues to inform engineering decisions.”
As a student leader, Jain is sincere and relatable, and “that allows her to have great influence,” Antoine said. When he speaks at events for new honors students, Antoine said he refers to Jain as an example of a student “who has taken full advantage of the opportunities she’s been offered.”
Jain aspires to become a social impact consultant, helping businesses and nonprofits around the world develop sustainable solutions to problems. The former treasurer of the Alpha Eta Mu Beta Biomedical Engineering Honor Society interns at the biotechnology firm, Celularity, Inc. After graduating, she will work for FTI Consulting as a consultant with its health solutions team in Manhattan.
While excited to graduate, Jain said she will miss the numerous opportunities available at Rutgers. Her only regret is not taking advantage of more of them. She did, however, join a campus lacrosse club as a second-semester senior and run her first half-marathon. In October, she traveled to Lindau, Germany for an interfaith diplomacy conference — an experience that ignited her passion for travel.
“If I had one lesson to share with everyone it would be this: Be excited about life. The small things, the big things, and everything in between. And use that excitement to overcome the lows and truly enjoy the highs and find fulfillment in what you do and whom you evolve into along the way,” Jain said. “I’ve learned that the power to create change lies in my hands.”