Harpur College graduate Ravi Gupta leads a life of revolution. At just 28 years old, Gupta returned to Binghamton University in December 2011, to accept the University’s highest honor, the University Medal, and to speak at the Fall Commencement ceremony.
Gupta warned the graduating class before him, most not much younger than himself, against a “life of half measures.” He urged them instead to choose a “life of revolution.”
“We’re inheriting a broken world,” Gupta said. “If there’s any hope for humanity, we have to fix it.”
For the past several years, Gupta has been devoted to doing just that.
After spending time as special assistant to both David Axelrod, chief strategist for the Obama for America Campaign, and Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Gupta is now heading the war for public education reform in Nashville, Tenn., as lead founder of Nashville Preparatory Charter School.
As a student in Harpur College, Gupta’s passion and potential were already evident.
Harpur College English professor Al Vos recognized Gupta’s talent and promise. Despite never having him as a student, Vos became one of Gupta’s closest mentors. The two met while Gupta was presenting a proposal to design his own major in the Individualized Major Program; Vos served on the IMP committee.
“I spotted talent,” Vos says. “He was very articulate, he was very passionate and he was very smart. … He was the perfect combination of heart and head. … Those qualities I saw then are the qualities he still has, and they are the keys to success. [They’re] the keys to any student’s success, but the point is, Ravi has them in spades.”
Gupta entered the University with thoughts of a career in medicine and finished all of his pre-med requirements, but within weeks of his arrival as a freshman, his life was changed forever by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“That ushered in a highly charged political time, a very volatile political time,” Gupta says. “And it helped shape my desire to work in politics and policy and really helped shape my beliefs [on] everything from foreign policy to education. Classic challenges I think our country faced during that time period really helped me think about the intersection between education and foreign policy, and the fact that, as Thomas Friedman likes to say, education is the biggest foreign policy issue of our time.”
Gupta became absorbed in politics and foreign policy. He wanted to become involved and turned to Binghamton University faculty members for advice.
Gupta named Vos and Janice McDonald, director of the Undergraduate Research Center, as people who helped him “think through” his life and career choices.
Gupta was awarded honorable mention in the USA Today Academic All-Star competition and was one of 77 students chosen out of 600 candidates to receive a $26,000 award from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation honoring leadership, intellect and potential for “making a difference.”
Perhaps Gupta’s most lasting accomplishment at Binghamton was his role in founding Binghamton Students for Students International (BSSI), a student group that raises money and awareness for third-world students.
Vos, an early supporter of the organization, recalls Gupta’s initial steps toward starting BSSI.
“[Ravi] went to Ghana one summer and discovered a need and figured out how he could meet that need ... and to do that he came back and created BSSI,” Vos says. “That’s sort of vintage Ravi: the passion, the drive, the [leadership]. The passion to change the world.”
Gupta lunged into politics after graduation, joining the Obama campaign for an experience that he called “incredible” and one which he was “blessed” to be part of.
According to Gupta, President Obama spoke to the challenges of 2001-05 that so shaped his life and beliefs.
Among Gupta’s strongest beliefs was the need for public education reform. So when he left his career in politics and set out to revolutionize public education, he did not view the move as a career path change.
“What I’m doing now is politics in the greatest sense,” Gupta says. “People who run schools like the school that we run, and people who are looking to change the policies that govern schools and students, we have an argument that is definitely a political argument about, ‘What is the future of this country?’ ‘What are our values?’ ‘Do our schools represent our values right now and if they don’t, how can we make them reflect our values?’ And for me, it wasn’t a matter of switching careers from politics to education reform, it was [a question of], ‘What is the most important political issue we have right now and how can I deal with it in the realest sense possible?’”
The answer for Gupta, clearly, was public education reform, and he dealt with it by jumping right in.
In 2010, Gupta became a fellow at Building Excellent Schools in Boston, and while he was there, Nashville mayor Karl Dean approached him about starting a charter school in Tennessee. Gupta is now school director of Nashville Prep (grades 5–12), which opened in August 2011.
“It’s been amazing,” Gupta says of the experience. “The school is incredibly strong. We take kids from all neighborhoods around Nashville, and it’s a true public school. We have kids of all economic backgrounds, but mostly students who come from low-income backgrounds. We’re taking kids who a lot of people have given up on and keeping them on the path to college, catching them up on academic work and creating a strong, joyful, rigorous academic environment.”
The central mission of Nashville Prep, according to its website, is to prepare each of its students for college, with longer school days (7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and a longer school year (190 days).
So far, everything is pointing to the school’s success, especially interim exam results, which Gupta says place Nashville Prep at the top.
“We’ve had incredible results so far, but we’re not declaring victory on anything yet,” Gupta says. “This is a long road, and because it’s a long road, we’re constantly asking, ‘How can we get better?’ ‘What are we doing right?’ ‘What are we doing wrong?’ ‘What are tweaks to our program?’ ‘How can we not only make our school the strongest possible public school in this city, but how can we actually change the game in a way that people look to our school as a national leader?’”
When Gupta was asked to accept the University Medal and speak at commencement, he admitted he was nervous — not to give the speech, but to see many people he hadn’t seen since his 2005 graduation.
“I was just nervous because I constantly feel like … if I didn’t know all the people I knew, if I didn’t have people in my corner, like the people in Binghamton, I don’t know if I would be as driven as I am right now,” Gupta says. “I just feel like I’m constantly thinking about just how much some of the folks, like the mentors in Binghamton and other people I’ve met in my life, just believe in what we’re doing and I feel almost nervous to see them … I always want to do the very best in their eyes.”
Vos’ reaction to hearing that Gupta would be awarded the University’s highest honor was slightly different. “I’ve known since I’ve met [Ravi] that he’s a rising star,” Vos said. “I’m glad the University has caught up.”
Last Updated: 6/3/15