Serena Gandhi (E ‘22) thinks that we’re all living in a simulation.
But instead of ruminating on the potential insignificance of life, she just finds it fascinating. “It’s kind of nice, because everything I do is pretty inconsequential,” she says. “[My best friend] could have picked anyone on this floating rock, but she’s my best friend.”
This sense of wonder and love underlies everything that Serena does, especially at Penn. On top of a rigorous major in digital media design and founding Penn’s chapter of Women in Animation, she teaches six fitness classes at the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center per week, from spin to cardio kickboxing to weightlifting.
She started working out at Pottruck due to a fear of the “freshman 15,” but the gym quickly became Serena’s haven from the stresses of her engineering courses. She now considers Pottruck her second home at Penn. She says, “[It provided me with] this way to focus my body on something else, like a way to shape my routine and a way to think about the things that my body can do and how strong it is, [rather than] how it looks and what it can’t do. It gave me a sense of agency and power.”
This assured, almost contagious self–confidence that Serena exudes has been imbued in her since childhood. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, Serena comes from a multigenerational Indian household that shaped her perceptions of love and loss.
Soon after her move to Fort Worth, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia. Her dad lived in and out of the hospital to be with her mom, meaning that she was primarily raised by her grandma, whom she remains close with to this very day. Her mom’s cancer went into remission after a couple years, but then quickly came back. She passed away when Serena was 8 years old.
The impact of her mom’s death didn’t fully hit her until she was in high school. “I started getting older and realized that there was something missing,” she says. “I realized that I’m [going to be] graduating high school, and my mom’s not going to be there … I became very depressed and very self–harming." She gained her footing after she started going to therapy. “That’s when I started going by the mantra of ‘choosing me,’” Serena says. “If something hurts too bad, I come first. Because at the end of the day, all I’ve got is me.”
Serena’s grandma has served as a significant maternal influence in her life. Shortly after the death of Serena’s mother, Serena's grandpa passed away—but her grandma’s response to loss further inspired Serena’s mantra to always choose herself. She speaks fondly of her grandma, saying, “She works out and has all these creative outlets. She loves cooking for herself and takes naps when she wants to. She is the prime example of choosing herself, and that has inspired me to do the same. When she takes care of herself so much, she has so much love to give to everyone else.”
And just like her grandma, Serena has endless amounts of love to share.
The summer before her senior year of high school, her grandma had knee surgery. Serena quit her job to go home and take care of her. “She was a huge diva. She wanted Indian food only. She couldn’t cook—she could barely stand. She didn’t trust anyone in the house to make Indian food. In fact, she didn’t want a restaurant either. The only person she trusted was our priest’s wife,” she laughs.
In accordance with her grandma’s wishes, Serena drove to her priest’s house to get the food, then to her grandma’s wellness center, and then back to her priest’s house to drop the dishes back off on a daily basis. It was an incredible labor of love, but Serena just finds it comical.
Serena’s love doesn’t just extend to her family—her friends have called her a “serial dater” as well. And she’s learned a lot from it.
She’s dated an engineering guy, a football player, and the girl who lives in the building next to her, among other characters. Her top three red flags in a partner are an overeagerness to enter your room, video gaming that’s a bit too advanced to be normal, and doing drugs every day. “Like, ‘Let me hit the bong, shower, and then eat breakfast.’ No, that’s a red flag,” she quips. She’s warned her cousin about her current boyfriend who likes LSD a little bit too much—and in my opinion, she’s completely correct. But according to Serena, she might be retiring from dating very soon.
“I think hookup culture can get exhausting, especially because I’m the kind of person who loves people in general. I will always find the good in people, so if they can’t reciprocate a generous energy to me, it kind of bothers me. … Reciprocity is everything in a relationship. One person constantly being drained of everything they have—that’s not love. That’s not a relationship,” she says.
Per Serena’s mantra, by distancing herself from Penn’s notorious hookup culture, she’s choosing herself once again. And her choice to choose herself again and again translates into the spaces that she navigates.
“In computer graphics, where there’s so many people trying to drown out other voices, you just have to establish right away that: ‘I don’t want that to happen. Thank you very much.’ That’s the only way to let it stop,” she says. “I’ve always felt like being honest and vulnerable about how you feel is important.”
Similarly, when it comes to her passions for upcycling, knitting, quilting, sewing, and crocheting (all “granny hobbies” that Serena says she got from her grandma), she makes sure that she forges a space where she can simply create. “People always say that, ‘Oh, you should sell your work.’ But I’m like, ‘Absolutely not.’ As soon as you monetize your hobby, it’s not for you anymore. It’s not as fun—it loses something.”
Serena is beginning to forge a space of her own in Philadelphia, starting with health and food. Post–graduation, she’s excited to use the extra free time she has as a grad student in computer graphics to more deeply explore Philly’s food scene.
“I love the farmers’ markets so much. I love the food scene. I’m a huge foodie … what did I do all spring break? I went to the farmers’ market. I bought groceries. I cooked. I ate. That’s all I did,” she tells me as her face lights up. “I could just eat forever in Philly.”
Despite her pursuit of a master’s degree prolonging her stay at Penn, Serena reflects on her undergraduate experience by appreciating the smaller moments during her three years here. She describes a time where she drank tea with a friend and “talked about [their] dead parents for four hours,” finding it incredibly cathartic to vent to someone who has shared similar losses.
Contrary to my original perceptions of what it means to love yourself and others, Serena effortlessly proves that it’s possible to choose yourself constantly and be completely unselfish at the same time. She can drive for hours to bring food to her grandma while also setting boundaries in spaces where she feels that her voice is being drowned out. She can politely ward off 3 a.m. “I love you” calls from flaky situationships while encouraging her students to love themselves and their bodies the next morning in spin class.
But despite the complexities that live within her, Serena’s aspirations are simple. “I really hope I’m happy. I hope I’m still in fitness—I really don’t want [to lose that part of me]. It makes me very happy.”