Commencement 2021: URI student commencement speaker finds love of learning 13,000 miles from her home in India

Edhaya Thennarasu works for student paper, performs in theater productions and plays central role in admission recruitment ad

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 4, 2021– When Edhaya Thennarasu was a student in Chennai, India, she wasn’t all that enthusiastic about her education. While she earned excellent grades, she found school a frivolous grind with a focus on grades, memorizing facts and reiterating those facts in class and on tests.

As she reviewed her University of Rhode Island application at her home in India, 13,000 miles from Kingston, she had just about given up on education.

Four years later, Thennarasu is invigorated and excited about learning, which she says is all because of professors, fellow students, her involvement in a variety of activities and a dynamic, experiential experience at URI. She will tell her story of educational reawakening and offer her gratitude to the URI community, how she and her fellow students battled through and even thrived during a worldwide pandemic and talk about the continuing struggles for justice as the student speaker for URI’s Commencement 2021.

She and other dignitaries will deliver their addresses to the Class of 2021 as part of the main commencement ceremony, which will be recorded and streamed on the URI 2021 Commencement website. Students, professors, parents, staff and friends will be able to watch the ceremony at any time throughout Commencement Weekend, May 21 through 23, and any time after that. During the weekend, graduates will participate in and two of their guests will be able to attend nine separate in-person college ceremonies at Meade Stadium.

“I was never going to enter another educational institution, especially in India because it was all about testing and scoring well,” Thennarasu said. “I assumed everything would be like that. But I did want to give it one more shot.”

Parents supportive

Thennarasu’s parents, who remain in India where the spread of COVID-19 is out of control, encouraged her not to give up, to give university life a try. The U.S. East Coast was a potential destination because she has relatives in the region she had visited before. She was attracted to URI and its Harrington School of Communication and Media, saying it offered great programs.

She will be thinking about her parents and other family members as she delivers her address.

“I don’t think there is any place in India that is not affected by the pandemic, but fortunately, I am in contact with my family, and they are all vaccinated,” Thennarasu said. “My parents can’t come, so it will be bittersweet. It’s so terrifying because we are constantly hearing about people who are close to us who are sick or who have passed away.”

During her earliest days at URI, she faced a challenge. A mistake was made on her passport that would affect how she would be known at URI and what her name would be on her URI records. Instead of using her last name, Thangam, authorities back home mistakenly used her father’s first name, Thennarasu, as her last name on the passport.

“I found out about it when I received my URI ID card,” she said. “It was just easier to stay with Thennarasu.”

Through all of these struggles, her parents have remained completely supportive.  “They gave me the freedom and support to choose my path. I will be thinking about my parents, and everyone else’s parents. We wouldn’t be here without our parents. They all deserve a shout out.”

Now just a few weeks away from commencement, the communication studies major and theater minor talked about her fulfilling, exciting and groundbreaking time at URI, which included:

  • Two years as a staff reporter at The Good Five Cent Cigar, the student newspaper, during which she wrote 40 stories on faculty, students, guest speakers and major URI events.
  • A year as an intern in URI’s Department of Marketing and Communications, during which she wrote press releases and features about student achievements that led to coverage in Rhode Island media. She also continued to work for the department through the pandemic, with one of her stories being featured in the University of Rhode Island Magazine.
  • Participating in three URI Theatre productions as an actor: “She Kills Monsters,” “The 39 Steps,” a radio play, and “Miss Nelson is Missing!,” a recorded play streamed to hundreds of classrooms across Rhode Island.
  • Serving as the lead student and voice-over talent for a national television and digital  URI recruitment campaign.
  • And spending time on a sustainability and resilience project in Cusco, Peru, as part of a URI communications class.

Given the chance to explore

“My experience here has been unique,” Thennarasu said. “I would not have had these opportunities anywhere else. Of course, I am going to miss the people, the faculty and my friends. But the thing that I’m going to miss the most is being a student in this wonderful URI community.”

She said that once she arrived on campus as a first-year student, she knew it was going to be different than her educational experience in India. She was also struck by the beauty of the Kingston Campus, saying it was like a page right out of Harry Potter.

“URI gives students plenty of room to explore opportunities,” she said. “I learned that what I do really matters here. I felt that warm welcome, and my only discomfort came from being so new. But I met some of the kindest people in my entire life during my time here.”

She joined the Cigar in the second semester of her first year.

“It became my home, where I made some amazing friends. It is an amazing community and I am still close to many current and former staff members,” Thennarasu said. “What the Cigar taught me was how to interact with different people, how to really listen. Having to write two stories every week forced me to improve my writing and interviewing skills.”

Thennarasu also won a Harrington School video competition that earned her a trip to California to view a taping of “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” and meet crew members.

“I grew up in India watching the Ellen show, and it was a dream of mine to go. I never thought I would though and especially not through my school.”

She describes her experience in URI Theatre as “going into a space where I forgot all things Edhaya that I would dwell on, and then learn how to be entirely in the moment and how to tell a story. The theater faculty are so talented and innovative that even when the pandemic eliminated live theater, they just said, ‘We’ll somehow find our way around this.’”

Between her sophomore and junior years, she was recruited by the Harrington School to star in URI’s 2019 recruitment video. Shooting took an entire day, and she worked throughout the summer on the voiceover from her home in India. She loved working with Heather Colby, assistant director of marketing at URI, the video crew and others to make the video.

“What was so fun was seeing how it all came together and seeing how the professionals do their jobs. It’s amazing to see what it really takes to produce videos and other creative work.”

So what’s next for this soon-to-be URI graduate who seems to have taken advantage of every opportunity she could have at URI?

“I’d like to find internships or jobs in video production work in some capacity that involves storytelling,” Thennarasu said, adding that she will remain in the states for a bit. “Even though I want to take it a step at a time, my dream would be to work in the entertainment or journalism world, for a company like Disney.”