By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Anjuli Smith has one foot in Niskayuna and the other in her mother’s native land, India.
She’s fluent in Malayam*, an Indian language from the state of Kerala, but also familiar with French, Latin, German and Chinese. She reminisces fondly on trips to places as diverse as Italy, Iceland and New York City.
High school should seem to be mundane in comparison with a life so packed with color. But Smith has managed to make an adventure of that, too.
As a sophomore at Niskayuna High School last year, Smith became curious about what it would be like to study somewhere else.
“I thought, now would probably be a good time to try an all-girls school,” she recalled of her move to Emma Willard School in Troy.
Smith, who still lives with her parents in their home on Townsend Road, said she always enjoyed her classes at Niskayuna, and still visits her teachers and friends whenever she can. But she’s also grown up with a sense of responsibility for her own education, and she found the opportunity to try a different setting irresistible.
Making the switch from one school to another, midyear, was a challenge for Smith.
“It was really hard at the beginning,” she said. “It was hard being pretty much the only new person there.”
She knew a friend or two that had left the public school system before she had, but other than that, Smith said it wasn’t easy to break into the social scene at first.
Luckily for her, Smith has never been afraid of her own uniqueness. For example, she’s never embarrassed to break into Kerala in public while talking to her mom, or even her dad, who is a native English speaker.
“My mom taught my dad a little bit of it,” she said. “I really like it. It’s like having a secret code.”
While she waited for her social life to become more comfortable, which it since has, Smith invested herself in her studies.
“The work is different,” she said of her new school. “It’s more about knowing why than memorizing the fact itself.”
Venturing into a new setting has helped Smith develop a relationship with subjects she never knew she enjoyed. Science, math and language have always come easily to her, but she’s since connected with less concrete concepts.
“My least favorite subject is history, but [at Emma Willard] it’s my favorite class,” she said.
She’s also begun studying Chinese, which wasn’t offered at Niskayuna.
For those who know Smith, there’s nothing new about her eagerness to dive into subjects that grab her interest. She’s always taken responsibility for her own education, beginning when she was young and wanted to be just like her sister, Anisha, who is seven years her senior.
They’d take piano lessons and a style of Indian dance called Bharatanatyam.
Sometimes she’d tag along so much, it annoyed her sister.
“She would always practice, and then I would want to practice,” Smith said, recalling the piano lessons they used to take together in their home.
Seeking new things
Anisha works in Boston now, and the copycat behavior has long since given way to an independent identity for Smith: she constantly seems to be seeking out something new to learn. She still plays the piano and dances.
“I really like Mozart,” Smith said. “His pieces are very light.”
She no longer has time to formally study dance, but her love for it is still deeply embedded.
“It connects me to my mother; she also danced when she was my age, and my sister,” Smith said. “The way we emote and gesture is connected to Bharatanatyam. It’s a lot about emotion, the dances.”
In the Bharatanatyam tradition, Smith and her sister are both considered professionals. They completed a culminating performance called Arangetram, which is a sort of graduation celebration.
Smith wasn’t ready to leave her art, which she describes as a kind of storytelling that combines acting and movement, so she seeks out ways to share it with others, like demonstrations at colleges and the Indian Literature class at Emma Willard.
“I want to do more with my dance,” she said.
Dance, music, and language all bring Smith plenty of happiness, but when it comes time to embark on a professional journey, she plans to head in the direction of the STEM fields.
“I definitely want to be an engineer,” she said. “I’d love to use what I learn and what I enjoy to solve problems in the world.
“I think there should be more girls in science, and I want to contribute to it,” she added.
If her new role models, alumni of the high school she chose, are any indicator, Smith is likely to go far. One example: she recently met U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who graduated in 1984, at an event the school organized.
“She’s really inspiring,” Smith said.
*This post has been updated to reflect the following correction: Anjuli Smith speaks Malayalam, an Indian language from the state of Kerala. An earlier version of this profile said the language she spoke was from Malaysia. Back to top