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Pandemic brought life lessons for Jai Khanna, winter commencement student speaker

December 13, 2021 By Doug Erickson

Winter Commencement student speaker Jai Khanna is majoring in mechanical engineering. He’s shown in a lab in the Mechanical Engineering Building. Photo: Bryce Richter

Graduating senior Jai Khanna is still tweaking the speech he’ll give Sunday as the student speaker for UW–Madison’s winter commencement. But he knows one message he wants to impart: Live life in the moment.

It was a lesson the international student says he was forced to learn during the pandemic. When COVID-19 struck in March of 2020, Khanna decided to stay in Madison and finish a few projects instead of quickly booking a flight back to his native India. By the time reality sunk in, borders had closed.

“It was a scary time — there was so much uncertainty,” Khanna says. “But I also have a lot of great memories from that time. Those of us left behind had to manage and adapt. We became very close.”

Khanna will address his fellow graduates at 10 a.m. Dec. 19 at the Kohl Center. All winter graduates were eligible to apply for the role. The senior class officers led the selection process.

“It’s quite an honor — and a little nerve-racking, as well,” says Khanna, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Khanna says he was motivated to apply for the speaking position after attending several past commencement ceremonies and being impressed with the student speakers. The role appealed to him.

“I have a little bit of love for the stage,” he says.

On campus, Khanna satisfied that urge in part with his involvement in multicultural student organizations, including Aa Dekhen Zara, an annual South Asian Dance competition hosted by UW–Madison students, and the Wisconsin School of Bhangra, one of the premier dance groups on campus. Khanna participated in the Wisconsin School of Bhangra as both a dancer and a group manager.

Khanna brought long-established leadership skills and an international perspective to his time at UW­­–Madison — a combination that enriched campus and led to multiple accomplishments. Born and raised in India, he was an active member of the Relay for Life fundraising effort at Oberoi International School, the high school he attended in Mumbai. As the organization’s sponsorship chair, he helped raise 1 million rupees to support cancer education, prevention, and research. He also served as a key member of the school’s student council and trained as a kickboxer, a sport he still enjoys.

Khanna continued his commitment to social causes and student-driven leadership at UW–Madison. Through all four years on campus, he served on the Student Advisory Committee for the Dean of Students Office. Beginning in 2020, he served on the COVID-19 Student Advisory Board.

Khanna rode out the first months of the pandemic at the LaCiel apartment building near campus. He and his friends and roommates attended classes virtually during the day, then spent evenings and weekends doing whatever activities were deemed safe at the time. They cooked for each other, played childhood board games, and took long drives together in the country.

“It was a great time to bond,” Khanna says. “And I learned a lot about myself because there was so much time to think.”

In July of 2020, Khanna was able to fly to the United Arab Emirates, where his parents were living at the time. He stayed there through December, returning to Madison for hybrid classes in January of this year.

During his time at UW–Madison, Khanna completed five internships in three countries — India, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. He has accepted a position as a mechanical design engineer in the area of battery packs for a leading U.S. manufacturing firm.

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