Rao: ‘I like to call myself a walking paradox’

By Aviva Luttrell

Vinayak Rao’s spectrum of interests is wide enough to stretch the globe – both literally and figuratively.

The senior Student Government Association president was born and raised in India until 2001, when he moved to Belmont with his parents. In high school, Rao traveled to Argentina on a tour with his rugby team. He’s visited the United Kingdom with his father, who lived there for 32 years, and has also traveled to Sri Lanka with his mother’s family. His sophomore year of college, he studied abroad in Brazil.

In high school, Rao played football, rugby and wrestling. He claims he can recite every line of Lord of the Rings, devotes a majority of his time to both his mental and physical well being and has dreams of one day hosting a travel show.

In other words, Rao has covered a lot of ground.

“I like to call myself a walking paradox or a walking oxymoron,” he said. “There’s a large disparity between the things I like to do. … I think having that varied interest really did me a lot of good because it opened my eyes to almost every single spectrum that I would be exposed to.”

Rao’s travels, he said, have made him especially aware of all different facets of life.

“It’s such a cliché statement that traveling opens your mind and broadens your perspective, but there’s so much validity to that claim that I can’t even understate it,” he said. “From my experiences traveling, I’ve seen how other people live their lives and how they make do with what they have. That has really opened up my mind in a way that nothing else has.”

In December 2011, Rao said he took an especially memorable trip to Sri Lanka with his grandmother and parents. Much of his grandmother’s family lived there until the 1980s, Rao explained, but was uprooted by genocide and moved to India.

“It was really nice to go there just to see the life that they lived back then, seeing the country in a state of peace rather than turmoil. I think that was really eye-opening to my grandmother and my mother,” he said.

And to understand how important family is to Rao, one only has to look at the extent to which he is willing to go to see them. Every year, he makes the 24-hour journey to India to visit his grandmother, who Rao said is the most important person in his life.

“I’ve spent more time in airports than I have in shopping malls,” he said. “Any chance I get to see her, I take up in a heartbeat.”

Rao’s father works in management for a cable television company, and his mother sings classical Indian film songs as a profession.

“One cultural fact is that the Indian movie industry is very closely tied with the Indian music industry, so the way that we would see a major hit song released in America, in India it would be released with a movie where they would sing and dance along to it. So my mother sings songs that are found in major Indian movies,” he explained.

However, Rao jokingly added that although the rest of his family is musically gifted – his father plays the guitar and his sister sings – he did not inherit that artistic talent.

At UMass, Rao is working toward a dual degree in communication and investment psychology, which he explained as a combination of courses in the finance department of the Isenberg School of Management and the psychology department.

“I think understanding how the human brain works is very important in all aspects, especially when it comes to financial decision making,” he said.

“What really got me is I wanted to learn whether you’re buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks or you’re buying a cup of coffee at say Rao’s, what goes on in your mind that makes you say, ‘I want to invest my two dollars into a cup of Rao’s coffee as opposed to Starbucks,’ or vice versa.”

Although Rao, 21, is entering his senior year, he is planning to take an extra year at UMass to write a thesis and space out his course load.

“I didn’t want to stress myself out too much this year, because given the nature of my job, I’ll be very busy throughout the day and the entire semester,” he said.

Today, Rao said he can’t picture himself attending any other college or university, but that wasn’t always the case.

“I came to UMass, I’ll be honest with you, with the mindset of transferring after the first semester, maybe to NYU or BU. I think after a week of living my freshman year at UMass, the thought of transferring completely left my mind,” he said. “I fell in love with UMass – the campus, the community, the professors, my friends – (and) everything about it made it feel like a home to me.”

In high school, Rao was never involved in student government, and said he didn’t really know what it was. However, he recalled a particular instance during his first week at UMass that sparked his interest in the organization.

“My freshman year, I was attending convocation down in the Mullins Center, and I saw the SGA president at the time, Yevin Roh, give his convocation welcoming speech. I can’t remember the specifics of what he talked about, but just seeing him talk there, being the one student amongst several different chancellors and vice chancellors really appealed to me because I saw him speaking and I realized that he had worked to get so hard to get to where he was,” Rao said.

“That was something I really wanted to aspire to do, and I didn’t know how to get involved my freshman year. Then I became friends with people in SGA, and my sophomore year I joined senate.”

He added, “I’m looking forward to giving my speech at convocation now, too.”

Rao represented Southwest Residential Area – South as a senator his sophomore year and served on the Ways and Means Finance Committees. He continued to be involved in the senate his junior year, and was elected Chairman of the Finance Committee.

“What I was in charge of in my committee was managing the trust fund, which at the time was valued at $95,000, which we allocated out to different RSOs on campus on need-based priority list,” he explained.

Now in his role of SGA president, Rao said, “I’m looking forward to a lot of things this year, but I think mainly just being in the position that I am and being really able to make a difference in the lives of the student body.

“I think that the most important thing a leader can do is not to tell people what to do or give orders, but to listen to what people have to say,” he continued. “I enjoy working with people because I genuinely enjoy listening to what people have to say, and I think that that’s probably the biggest trait that I’ve learned that has helped me in my leadership positions in the past.”

In addition to his involvement in SGA, Rao is a brother of the Theta Chi fraternity and was the marketing director of last year’s TEDxUMassAmherst.

After college, Rao said his dream job would be to host a travel show similar to Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” where the Bourdain travels the globe sampling local food and culture.

However, Rao said that realistically, he hopes to join an information technology startup, and move to either Seattle or San Francisco.

“I think what’s really great is what I’m learning in SGA is leadership skills, I learned marketing skills and promotional skills (from TEDxUMassAmherst) and what I learn from Theta Chi is just how to grow personally,” he said. “What I think is really amazing is that I’m finding that every single lesson I’ve learned in these separate entities and organizations, I’m using in all my other ventures, as well.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @AvivaLuttrell.