This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Avanti Nagral sees a connection between her two passions, music and health. And the connection she has shared with others during four years on campus will continue after she leaves.
“When you’re the first to do something, there’s a great sense of responsibility, and also potential,” she said. As one of the first cohort of the dual-degree partnership between Harvard and the Berklee College of Music, which lets students earn both a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard in four years and a master of music from Berklee in five years, Nagral was able to help shape the program itself.
Nagral was already a professional musician when she arrived at Harvard expecting to study psychology and global health, after a gap year pursuing musical and theatrical projects in her native India. But during her first year, the University announced a new partnership with Berklee and Nagral stepped right up, becoming the first person to enroll in the program.
“I’ve loved being able to adapt a lot of my coursework to serve my creative passions,” she said. At Harvard, Nagral concentrated her studies on psychology and global health, “themes I care about in the world.” At Berklee she added a full course of musical instruction, making for a truly broad-based education.
“Both Harvard and Berklee have felt like all-you-can-eat buffets, where you can’t possibly sample everything,” said Nagral. In four years devouring opportunities at each place, she’s become almost a poster child for the program: studying a neuroscience textbook while waiting for a private voice lesson at Berklee; turning in songs or a music business plan as classwork at Harvard. Likewise, her courses on gender studies and activism at Harvard have informed her songwriting and stage performances at Berklee.
And she has relished the opportunity to be an ambassador for both schools, bringing friends and fellow musicians along to explore each campus. “I’ve brought a lot of Berklee musicians to Harvard to perform, and it’s been a cool way to bring those two worlds together,” she said. Nagral has played dozens of concerts at each campus and performed at events such as Harvard’s first naturalization ceremony for new American citizens and the opening of the renovated Smith Campus Center.
Last fall, she helped organize Narratives for Change, a conference co-sponsored by the Harvard Global Health Institute and Johnson & Johnson, which drew together experts in arts, media and entertainment, storytelling, and social impact. Nagral is passionate about access to health care, sex education, and mental health resources, and her online platform as a musician also gives her the chance to spread positive, informative messages about these topics.
“The things I create and share are simple skills and simple conversations,” Nagral said of her health advocacy work. “Basic first aid, sexual health information, registering to be an organ donor — you don’t have to have a medical background to access them. But people connect with the message and gain a new understanding. The more I build a platform as an artist, the more of a platform I have to share these messages.”
At Harvard, Nagral enjoyed performing at concerts and conferences, and also belonged to MIHNUET, a student group that performed for the elderly at nursing homes or hospitals. “It was a very amateur form of music therapy — a chance to connect with people who are a little bit invisible in society,” Nagral said. “I loved getting the chance to interact with older folks, and it was amazing to see how music can help in the management of chronic pain.”
She also loved learning from world-class experts.
“Both places are just amazing,” Nagral said. In her course on negotiation and conflict management, a guest speaker flew in from the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to provide real-world perspective. “We’ll be discussing a case study on a world conflict, and in walks the past president of one of the countries involved,” she said. Her courses at Berklee were often taught by faculty members with decades of deep experience in the music industry.
She’s also appreciated being able to put her training to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nagral has been giving online concerts, some of them in partnership with mental health organizations. And even while attending classes remotely, she found time to produce a YouTube video on mental health in the age of coronavirus.
“The importance of the arts is really highlighted at a time like this,” she said. “And since I can’t perform for a live, in-person audience, I’m asking: How do I learn to perform for myself again? How do I really fall in love with it again?” Whether it’s recording songs in her improvised home studio or playing classical Indian music with her father, Nagral is doing her best to bring creativity and light to her audiences during a stressful time.