Name: Aarushi Pendharkar
Hometown: Worcester, Mass.
Major: Systems science and engineering, minors in math and statistics, master's in bioengineering
Activities: Advancing Women in Engineering advisory board (AWE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), International Council on Systems Engineering
34th Street Magazine: You entered Penn at 15 years old. What inspired you to start that young?
AP: I entered Penn as a [first year] when I was 15. It was because I was skipping grades from an early age, starting at 3 and a half. When I entered kindergarten, academically, I was just already more advanced than kids my age who were going to preschool. I remember the kindergarten teacher decided to just advance me after I took some initial tests. I remember having to tell the time on the clock and stuff. And I also did take an IQ test. But what's interesting about that is the youngest age they make IQ test[s for] is 4 or 6 years old, so I ended up having to take that test when I was 3. Then I kind of went along. I moved up grades each year, and then just started to get really bored in school. In sixth grade, I took the seventh–grade finals and just went directly to eighth grade. After that, no more grade–skipping, but those little jumps early in life are what led me to apply. [When I became] a senior in high school I was 14, and I turned 15 in December of my senior year.
What was it like navigating college at such a young age?
That's a question I get asked [a lot]: "Do you feel like you missed out on anything being younger? Were there challenges?" I think the point of my unique situation is the fact that I've kind of been able to challenge the norms and expectations that society places on what someone should be doing at a certain age. I really feel like I've been able to carve my own path and set my own expectations for myself. Sure, there have been challenges along the way, especially the occasional mother wondering why such a young freak was in her kid's grade. And I've gotten used to the initial shock on people's faces when they find out I'm so young, but I've learned. Especially—this has been really central—I've learned that the people who value me as an individual truly appreciate this unique facet about me, while the people who really just want nothing to do [with me] aren’t people I particularly care to spend my time thinking about anyways. I really think my whole existence and the fact that I'm really young forces people to think and wonder why they're following society's norms and expectations and not carving their own paths themselves. So, in terms of being at Penn, I've really, really enjoyed being here, and I feel fortunate that I was almost able to get a head start at such a young age.
How did you get involved in Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE)?
Since my first year, I've been receiving emails, because all [non–male] undergrads get emails from the director of AWE. I thought some of the events [looked] really cool! My favorite event was the finals breakfast that usually happens during reading days, which so many female engineers attend. Everyone’s there, and there's just a lot of food. It's like the last push before finals starts. And then sophomore spring, I saw the email that they were looking for new board members, and that's when I applied because that was something I really wanted to be a part of, after seeing all the emails for study hours, going to some of them, and really enjoying bonding with other engineers on campus. That's when I interviewed and got offered to be on the board starting sophomore spring. It's been a great learning journey since then. I really found my passion for leading teams and mentoring. I really, really enjoy mentoring and figuring out how we can best help students and female engineers on campus. We've done events across the board, and we've had a panel on summer internships where we brought on different women in engineering, students in engineering, or upperclassmen who have experiences with summer internships. We've tried to cover research, software engineering, finance—all the different kinds of avenues we can offer.
What inspired you to submatriculate to a master's in bioengineering?
I actually entered Penn as a bioengineering major. And at the time, I thought I was pre–med. I guess I hadn't really thought enough about it. But I realized while I was a first year and took all of the basic lab requirements that what really drew me in were my math courses. So I started out in MATH 240 [first–year] fall, which is linear algebra and differential equations. I really enjoyed that. And [first–year] spring, I took a seminar about algebraic proofs. And I really enjoyed that, too. I [started] thinking that bioengineering just didn't feel like the right fit for me at the moment, that maybe there's something else for me. That's when I kind of happened on systems engineering.
I've always retained a really big interest in biological applications. I have a big fascination for the brain and neuroscience. And as I was taking courses in systems engineering, I was taking a lot of grad–level courses as well, just on the side, whether they counted toward my major or not. I realized that I was overloaded just by taking courses out of interest. And a lot of these grad courses, I realized, could count toward the master's program. That's when I applied, and I was accepted as a [submatriculating student]. This semester, I'm taking three courses that will count toward the grad program, and I'm loving it. I love seeing the connections between [bioengineering and systems engineering]. For example, in the health care management class that I'm taking, one of the guest speakers talked about using Markov chains, which is something I've learned in my systems engineering classes. So being able to see the connections between the two fields has been really fantastic.
What’s been your favorite Penn memory?
I would say, honestly, one of my favorite parts is just walking down Locust and seeing people and saying "hi" to people whenever we're rushing to class. I'm sad I haven't been able to do this in the past few months because of COVID–19. I think we talk about our communities [we] form at Penn as clubs or whatever organizations usually, but I think what's also really important is the greater Penn community. For example, [in your first] year, you don't know as many people—maybe you see someone from your hall and you wave to them, you're kind of just trying to navigate your path and meet people. And then by the time you [reach] your sophomore and junior [years,] every other person is somebody—really someone you recognize—and I think that's just such a great feeling. Penn is such a large community. It's thousands of people. And yet it's such a small world, and it becomes such a small world as you meet more people, and so I think that has definitely been one of my favorite parts, and it's something I look back on really fondly. Also, seeing the different seasons through the trees.
What’s next after Penn?
On the passion side, I know that I want to be involved with something to do with education and helping children to realize their potential. We all [have] so much excitement and this can–do attitude as children. But people, societal norms, and boxes make us think and feel like we can't do and be anything we want to be. I'm really passionate about personalized education and helping students carve a path that's tailored to their interesting capabilities. We're all going to do different things. I'm not sure exactly what my role would be, whether it's through entrepreneurship or with an organization or something else. But I do know that I want to be able to use my own experience in being able to carve my own path to break stereotypes around age and help kids be exactly where they want to be. On the personal and career side, I would love to partner with and invest in startups that are focused on the future, like frontier technology, ad tech, feature work, and health tech … I really have so many interests.
Last song you listened to: "The Boxer," Simon & Garfunkel.
What building on campus would you be and why: Huntsman because it’s young, cool, and confusing. Also, MBA Café—it was my go–to spot pre–COVID–19.
First–year fun fact: There’s an asteroid named after me. When global warming hits, that’s where I’m going to live.
There are two types of people at Penn: Those that are productive on the weekends, and those that are not.
And which one are you: I'm very much the latter. No matter how much I try.