One in Two Thousand: Divya Sampath ’18

Marshall Borrus/Staff Photographer.
Marshall Borrus/Staff Photographer.

Divya and I first bonded freshman fall over our gap years, our interest in international development and our spontaneous approach to buying plane tickets. Since then we’ve spent time together on a remote Nicaraguan coffee-farming mountain and writing comparative politics papers. She took the time to talk with me this week about her life, sharing her funny stories.

How did you end up taking a gap year? Was that a weird choice for you?

It was kind of a spontaneous choice. I applied to my gap year program the last possible night, probably a minute after the deadline. It was very random that I ended up in Ecuador. But I’m glad I did. I ended up in a very small town along the highway in western Ecuador with a really wonderful host family.

Are there other big decisions you’ve made on a very spontaneous nature?

Probably everything. Even Williams was a very spontaneous decision. I applied to colleges all over the country, of all sizes. Williams was the only small liberal arts college I applied to. But then I showed up for Previews and I really liked it, so I decided to come but defer a year.

How about any spontaneous incidents at a massage parlor in Ecuador?

This story will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] My friends and I were in our first couple months in Ecuador — our Spanish wasn’t there yet — and we decided to go on a weekend away. We went to this city called Baños which is super touristy, full of adventure activities. It was raining, and we were like, “What should we do in the rain?” And a taxi driver told us we should go to this spa, called El Refugio, which means “the refuge,” and we were like, “Ooh that sounds great.” So we go there and it’s beautiful, like they take us on this silent walk and then at the end of the silent walk we were supposed to scream into an abyss of a valley … just like scream all our worries away. Then we went into the massage area and my friend pointed at some things on the menu that looked like a massage. The lady was like, “Sure, we’ll take you in.” My friend’s exact words were, “We’ve been eating a lot of fried eggs and rice for the past three months; what will help our bodies?” and the lady was like, “This.” We probably should’ve known from her request that something weird was going to happen. But they take us to a back room and my friend goes in first and she just immediately screams as if someone has hurt her or stabbed her, and then runs out to another room and shuts the door and won’t talk to us. And then my other friend goes in. We hear her chatting away a little bit but then a minute later she runs to another room, closes the door, won’t come out. Neither of them are talking to me, neither of them are making any sound, and so then I decide I’ll go in and see what happened to them, in case I need to call the police or something. And I go in this small little room and it’s just a tiny Ecuadorian lady and a massage bed and she tells me to take my clothes off and lie face down on this bed. I was like, sure, that sounds like a massage — I’d never gotten a massage before. And next thing I knew … [Laughs.] I was apparently experiencing some kind of medical procedure for people who are having trouble using the bathroom, because I felt my stomach fill with water, and then I started to laugh and realized I really needed the bathroom. I told her to please stop, and I found a bathroom and didn’t leave for another half-hour. When we left we realized the room had said “Enema” on the front. It’s a cognate in Spanish, so we should’ve realized what was happening to us before it happened.

This summer you were traveling again in Portugal. Did it feel different than on your gap year?

It was very different in the sense that I was surrounded by a lot of other young people traveling, which wasn’t really the case in Ecuador. I was with some really cool people from all over the place. Prior to going to Portugal, I traveled a bit as well in Europe and that was really reckless and fun. I planned very little and I was all alone. So everything was super last-minute, super spontaneous like waking up at 5 a.m. to get tickets to the Alhambra with a random Bolivian guy or biking on an ancient highway with some random Australian woman and then getting trapped under a tree for an hour in a thunderstorm and meeting this pretty famous Italian economist. I only realized last week that he’s actually a pretty famous Bank of Italy macroeconomist and we were hanging out with him for an hour because we were all trapped from the thunderstorm.

Tell me about your relationship with your parents. What are they like?

[Laughs.] My parents are very unique, I guess — they had me very late in life, so my mom was 51 when I was born. I like to say that my brother and I are technically twins but a year apart, because our embryos were made at the exact same time in some lab on the Upper East Side, but then he was frozen away and I was born first, and he was born 14 months later. Right now, my mom’s in her 70s; my dad’s in his 80s. He still works every day. He’s a medical physicist at a hospital in Queens, so he commutes an hour on a train every day. My parents are awesome. My relationship with them has definitely improved over the past couple years. Going away to Ecuador for a year made our relationship so much stronger. I used to be really scared to build a relationship with my parents on a personal level because the fear of loss is higher when they’re of that age, but now I just really value whatever time and conversation I’m able to have with them. Sometimes, going away can feel kind of like I’m betraying them and the time we have together, but at the same time I know it brings us a lot closer together.

And are you close with your brother?

Whenever we’re together, I always feel like a little kid again because we argue and fight, but we also have these connections and moments that are just you and your sibling. I remember, when we were little, he accidentally kicked a balloon and hit a painting, and the painting fell on my uncle’s head and knocked him unconscious. And my brother was really afraid that he was going to be arrested. He was like seven years old, so while the paramedics were whisking my uncle away to the hospital, I hid my brother in a closet and I told him nothing would ever happen to him because I would always be there for him. I always think about that moment. It was so stupid because obviously no one was taking him to prison, but I hope that will always be true, that he can trust me and that I trust him a lot.

Any other childhood stories?

This was another really weird moment in my life, when I was almost on reality TV. I speak really fast — most of my friends know this and they’re probably pretty used to it. I was somehow recruited to sign up for this thing called the Manhattan Project. Yeah, I know that’s a bomb. [Laughs.] But it was also a code name for a CBS reality show. My parents and I thought it was an architecture program because the tagline was, “Kids build a town.” So I wrote this application; my special talent was that I speak quickly, and then I was brought into a hotel downtown. I was interviewed on camera, and I had to say the alphabet really quickly. My thing was that I could say it in under four seconds; I don’t know if that’s true anymore. Then they flew me out to Los Angeles for a week and I was interviewed by L.A. CBS producers. I had no idea what was going on. They were like, “What’s your favorite style of government?” and I said “Oligarchy” because that’s what I had learned in fourth grade in Greek history. [Laughs.] What the heck did I know about running a government? I did not make it on the show, but I watched it in horror because it turns out these poor kids were left to fend for themselves in a ghost town in New Mexico and a lot of them got acid burns from trying to cook. They voted each other off the island, basically, and then if you won you got a college scholarship. My brother loves to buy those episodes on iTunes and laugh, like, “You were almost on this.” [Laughs.] But I think life worked out for the best.

Where do you want to go from here? 

I’m a chemistry and [political science] major, and I hope I can find some kind of career that will allow me to bring the sciences into a responsible role in international development. I hope I can work on water purification technology or making science something that is actually helpful in the day-to-day and not in, like, a neocolonialist uber-technological state sense of the word. I hope to work abroad a lot. I really want to live in New York for the rest of my life, though, as a home base. I love that city a lot. I think I definitely want to go back to India. I used to live in India when I was very little, and then we went back a lot, and then now I haven’t been back in a long time. I would love to spend some significant time there and learn more about my culture, considering I’ve been pretty out of touch with it in a big way. This is an insecurity I have — that I don’t fit in when I travel in India because I’m very light-skinned. I don’t look very Indian, so I hope to get over that. It’s strange when I feel more at home in Ecuador or Nicaragua than where my whole family is from, and I hope that I can work on that as a personal challenge.