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updated: 1/9/2014 5:43 AM

Oak Brook native travels route from shy kid to Rhodes Scholar

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  • Video: Vinay Nayak: Rhodes Scholar

  • Vinay Nayak

    Vinay Nayak

  • Vinay Nayak, 21, of Oak Brook, will start studying in October at the University of Oxford in England. One of only 32 Americans to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship this year -- and the only one from Illinois -- Vinay will focus on the philosophy of politics while at Oxford.

      Vinay Nayak, 21, of Oak Brook, will start studying in October at the University of Oxford in England. One of only 32 Americans to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship this year -- and the only one from Illinois -- Vinay will focus on the philosophy of politics while at Oxford.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer


Vinay Nayak once was so shy that his teachers asked -- not entirely in jest -- for a home video to prove he was a normal, talkative boy as his mother claimed.

Now relaxed and confident, the 21-year-old Oak Brook resident never forgot what it feels like not to have much of a voice.

"I've tried to find a way to express myself and help other people find their voice too, both politically and outside of politics," said Vinay, a senior at Yale University and one of this year's recipients of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Vinay is one of only 32 Americans -- and the only one from Illinois -- selected among 857 applicants endorsed by 327 colleges and universities to receive the scholarship, which covers all expenses for study at the University of Oxford in England. He joins the ranks of past recipients such as former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter and U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Vinay credits the mentoring he got at Hinsdale Central High School, where he was co-valedictorian in 2010, and participation in the school's mock trial, speech and debate teams, with helping him break out of his shell.

"I started finding some ways to express some of the opinions that I had," he said.

"I became interested in public speaking and communication, and I started to believe in the power of words to influence how people think about things. I still believe in that today."

Vinay went on to win the National Forensic League's National Oratory Championship in 2010. At Yale he served as president of the Mock Trial Association and was named an all-American attorney by the American Mock Trial Association. His academic work at Yale, where he is majoring in political science, has focused on how the Internet can be used to increase and enhance people's engagement in elections and policymaking.

At Oxford, he'll study for a master's in philosophy of politics focusing on comparative government.

When he took a semester off to work as an intern for the Obama 2012 re-election campaign headquarters in Chicago, Vinay showed wisdom beyond his years, said Teddy Goff, the campaign's digital director.

Vinay was in charge of youth organizing, and coordinated the work of a large group of people from content writers to field organizers, said Goff, who has since co-founded Precision Strategies in New York and Washington, D.C.

"We probably shouldn't have given that responsibility to an intern, but he was just so competent and on top of things, it didn't feel like a risky move at all," Goff said.

Vinay showed great capacity to stay cool under pressure, difficult even for those who've worked multiple campaigns, Goff said.

"He's an instantly likable guy with great charisma, real leadership qualities. He's not just someone you like, but he's also someone people had a lot of respect for."

The next general election in the United Kingdom is slated for May 2015, a particularly fitting timing for Vinay to be there.

"I'm very interested in taking some of these tools used by the Obama campaign, and learn how we can use those in different countries and also for different purposes that aren't political -- disaster relief, helping people share stories for awareness, nonprofit fundraising and awareness, getting people to volunteer in communities, making it easier for people to contact people, helping police departments to use social mapping to predict crime."

Vinay also interned for the White House Office on Digital Strategy and managed the social media presence for parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

As a White House intern, he got to hear speakers such as President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. "They were incredibly inspiring," Vinay said. "I'm a humongous fan of all of them."

Vinay's parents met in India and immigrated to the United States, where he and his older brother, Rajeev, were born.

Anita Nayak said Vinay grew up always trying to measure up to his older brother, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now works as a software engineer for Dropbox in California.

"They didn't need any pushing, either of my kids, they seemed to be motivated on their own," she said.

Vinay was a very private child who kept to himself until he joined the mock trial team, Anita said. That brought out the best in Vinay, who ended up speaking at his 8th grade commencement ceremony, she said.

"His 2nd grade teacher came up to me, she pinched my arm and she said, 'I don't believe that's the kid that was in my class. I could never imagine that he would be out here doing a public program.'"

Both Anita and Vinay credit much of his success to the education he received at Hinsdale Central, where he also played tennis and ran cross-country.

"It's an unbelievable school," Vinay said. "I've really had the chance to meet teachers and professors who inspire me to try my hardest and learn the most I possibly can from them."

He also played the violin with the DuPage Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the electric guitar in a band with friends.

"We practiced in a friend's basement. We occasionally had a mom show up," he said.

Unlike many brainy academics, Vinay is all about the practical application of his work, said journalist Walter Shapiro.

The two met when Shapiro, a former Washington bureau chief for who's worked for USA Today, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and more, taught a political science seminar last spring at Yale.

"I was tremendously fortunate to have him as one of 17 students," said Shapiro, who's worked with 10 or 15 other Rhodes Scholars over the years.

"From the beginning I've been exceedingly impressed by him. There is a certain intellectual seriousness (in Vinay) combined with a real need to engage in the real world. He's somebody who has thought real hard about the digital aspects of politics, about big data in politics," he said.

Shapiro said he believes Vinay will make a difference in the American landscape.

"Rarely have I met someone who I am really convinced will be a really important figure in the next 15 years."

Vinay dipped his toe in the world of politics in fall 2011 by unsuccessfully running for alderman in New Haven, Conn., in the ward where Yale is located. His campaign focused on criminal justice issues, infrastructure improvements, and minimum wage law enforcement, he said.

"I also strongly believe that it's our duty to improve our community, and to me, as both a Yale student and a New Haven resident, I felt that discussing these issues would help improve my community."

Vinay acknowledges he's a hard worker, but says that he's also "a pretty normal guy."

"I think it's healthy to have high expectations for yourself. But to me, it's not about the grades, it's not about what your resume says, or what your transcript says -- it's about taking the opportunities you are given and making the most of them," he said.

"I'm someone who admires people I meet a lot. Every person I meet I usually feel there's a number of things they are better than me at. I try to learn the best from people."

Getting people engaged in the political process is crucial, Vinay said.

"The low voter turnout is not because half of the people in American think politics is terrible and don't want a part of it. It's because many people, they want to express themselves but they don't know how -- or think it's too difficult," he said.

"Voting in this country is difficult, and we have to think how to make it easier."

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