Student Spotlight: Priyanka Chandak
Pursuing your passions while staying open to change
by Marcelle Santos
At 28 years old, Priyanka Chandak has lived what seems like several completely different lives. In one, she was a financial analyst/marathon runner in Calcutta. In another, she was a fitness instructor in Mumbai. Now she’s an aspiring data scientist pursuing her Masters of Professional Studies in Analytics at Northeastern University San Jose.
She originally moved to California to be with her husband, whom she met while still living in India. Before coming to the US, she’d only been out of the country once, on a short trip to Singapore.
When I ask her what’s different about the U.S., she talks about how much quieter Northern California is than the bigger cities she’s lived in, and how work-focused the culture is. “Here, it’s all so calm! Everyone is so focused on their work. There, not everyone works. And many people have their own businesses.”
Her dad is one of those people. She gets her analytical thinking and problem-solving abilities from him. “He thinks of all possible angles. I’m the same. If I’m given a task, I’ll think of all the possibilities, the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario.”
She thought long and hard before deciding to become a fitness instructor—even if, to some of those who knew her, that decision looked like she wasn’t thinking at all. “At school, there were competitions and I always had the highest score. There was this notion that I was an intelligent kid and should focus on academics, not sports.”
But sports had always been an important part of Priyanka’s life. While she won math competitions, she’d also brought home medals for tae kwon do and basketball.
She only stopped being active after high school, when a scooter accident left her severely injured and depressed.
One of the consequences of the accident was that she ended up not going to her dream college, despite her excellent grades. Instead, she had to enroll in a college closer to home so that her parents could check on her while she recovered from her injuries. That crushed her. “I was very competitive and career-oriented, so it really affected me.”
The other was the scars. One which was visible made her even more self-conscious about her appearance, which she already struggled with in high school.
To make everything worse, she got a severe case of dengue fever not long after the accident and had to be hospitalized again. Through it all, she was alone, living away from the family and friends that surrounded her for eighteen years, with her parents as her only support system.
Getting back up
Academically, she was doing well. But with everything else, she was struggling. “Health-wise, I was dealing with a lot. I couldn’t make friends—I was so into my shell. I stopped talking to everyone. I completely isolated myself. That was the most challenging year of my life.”
It took her nearly two years to pull herself out of her shell. One video helped her.
It’s a video of Nick Vujicic, a man born without arms or legs, giving a speech to kids at a school. In it, he talks about bullying and the importance of not believing what people say you are. Of not giving up.
Priyanka watched it on repeat. “I was just in awe that he had lost so much while I had everything. I realized I needed to get out of that mindset.”
The first thing she did was join a gym. There, she met a woman who had run a 42K marathon. That sounded hard, and Priyanka was intrigued. She asked the woman question after question about her nutrition and training until the woman eventually asked if Priyanka wanted to join her on a run.
Priyanka hated running. Or at least she thought she did, because she always skipped the 10 minutes on the treadmill she was supposed to do at the end of her workout sessions. But she’d made up her mind to try new things. And she told herself that if she got bored, she would just give herself a challenge.
That’s how she ended up running a 10K marathon without any training. “I just wanted to see if I could finish it. Did I have that kind of spirit in me? Was I still that competitive?” I put myself into these challenges to check how hard can I push myself.”
After that, she got serious about running. She joined a marathon training group and found community with people from all walks of life, including a bunch of Army soldiers. For one and a half years, she ran a series of 5K and 10K marathons. Then one day, she ran her first 25K—and her last marathon.
The last marathon
When Priyanka hit the ground the day of her 25K run, she did it with a serious foot injury. In three months of training for the marathon, she’d developed ankle tendinitis, when a tendon in the ankle gets inflamed. She found out just two days before the race, when her foot was hurting so badly that she had to go see a doctor.
She still ran the 25K, with her ankles taped up. Later, in physical therapy, she was told to stop running for good. “There’s something called the Spring effect. Your feet have arches that give you a bouncy effect and help you run faster. If your feet are flat, like mine, the impact is too much and can lead to multiple injuries.”
Priyanka was heartbroken. Running had become a sort of therapy for her. But this time, she didn’t stay depressed for long. “Within two weeks, I realized that I was getting into a bad mindset, and started researching other things I could take up.”
She thinks her stint as a runner actually helped her deal with the unexpected news better. “One thing sports gave me is that it made me more flexible in my thinking. This mindset shift happened when I was running marathons. Running made me quicker in dealing with any challenge.”
Taking up something new
A friend suggested she try yoga. She agreed. And because she didn’t know any better, she started with Ashtanga yoga, the most physically challenging of all yoga styles.
It was hard—she could barely finish her first class. And so she got serious about practicing. Once she’d mastered the basics, she traveled to Mysore, India’s mecca of yoga, to train as an Ashtanga yoga teacher.
By then, she was fitter, happier, and more empowered than she’d ever been. And she felt called to help others improve their lives through exercise.
When she met her now-husband, she had been working for nearly three years as a certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist in India in parallel to working as a business analyst at a retail firm. She was planning to continue her career in fitness in the U.S., but the Master’s programs in the field of Fitness and Health had strict requirements—she couldn’t get in with a degree in Economics.
Then the pandemic came and the fitness industry turned upside down. With gyms closed, Priyanka started training clients over Zoom—and found that she didn’t enjoy her work as much as she used to. “There’s a huge difference from training online to training in person.”
Finding data analytics
She decided to go back to working with numbers full-time. “I was always good at math and statistics at school. For three years at university, I studied mathematics, statistics, and economics, and enjoyed it.”
When researching potential careers that were heavy in mathematics and statistics, she discovered data science—and learned all she could about this field of work.
“I did in depth-research. I talked to data analysts and data scientists. I took online courses to understand the industry and the skill set needed. I also took mini-courses on all the software—SQL, R, Tableau, Python—so that I could have a basic understanding of what I would be doing.”
Without realizing it, she’d started developing the self-learning mentality that is an essential element of Northeastern’s Master of Professional Studies in Analytics. “[In the program,] the resources are there, but your path is individual. You learn how to learn and how to help yourself. If you don’t know something, you search for answers on YouTube, or in the documentation. You research.”
In six months at Northeastern, she has vastly improved her ability to find answers and solve problems on her own. “I feel empowered. My mindset has shifted. Before [when learning something new], I used to think, oh, it’s going to be so difficult. Now I feel like I can learn anything!”
So far, she’s mastered Excel, MySQL, VBA, R, and Python. She’s also learned how to conduct exploratory data analysis, how to build machine learning models, and how to create dashboards for powerful visualization—all while working part-time as a Student Ambassador, organizing unique events that combine her interests and expertise. “I’m trying to bring fitness and art events to Northeastern as much as I can along with fun cultural events like Holi.”
Her favorite so far has been the Mandala art workshop—she’s a fan of sketching and painting as a way to meditate. “Art is a meditative therapy and it can help so much!”
Nowadays, when she’s not making art or studying or helping to create a sense of community on campus, she’s looking for internships. She’s hoping to get one that helps her dive deeper into her two current obsessions: machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“I want to learn whatever is happening in the industry, what projects are being created, what skills I need, and which ones I am lacking so that I can work on them. When I get into something, I want to reach the highest level I can, to go to whatever heights I can go. That’s my competitive side. It’s always in me.”