Kumar, Torres honored with Parker Award

Devoting yourself to public service while completing a rigorous Rice education is no small task. Last weekend, Navya Kumar and Sonia Torres received the Annise Parker Impact through Public Service Award for doing just that.

From left: Annise Parker, Sonia Torres, Navya Kumar and Rice President David Leebron. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

From left: Annise Parker, Sonia Torres, Navya Kumar and Rice President David Leebron. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Each year, the university honors a graduate who exemplifies the values and ideals of the commencement speaker. This year’s speaker was Annise Parker ‘78, Houston’s mayor from 2010-16, who graduated from Rice with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, psychology and sociology.

Kumar and Torres, both of Hanszen College, were selected for their community service efforts both locally and globally.

Austin-born Kumar graduated with a degree in sociology and recently won an Alan Grob Prize through Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) for her service work as a Rice Health Advisor and Alternative Spring Break ambassador. She also spent last summer as an intern with the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) in the Maternal and Child Health Division.

Torres, who hails from Baytown by way of Caguas, Puerto Rico, graduated with a degree in mathematical economic analysis. She spent the summer of 2017 in Uganda as a research intern at the Research Triangle Institute on another USAID project, but has also worked extensively to increase voter turnout in Houston through three separate organizations — one of which she helped create.

“As a documented Latina student, I am hyperaware of the privilege that comes with being born an American citizen, and I take my responsibility to represent my community seriously,” Torres said. “As a volunteer deputy voter registrar, I get to help other students, typically first-time voters, do the same.”

Sonia Torres

Sonia Torres

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections alone, Civic Duty Rice, the organization she co-founded, helped register more than 500 Rice students to be new Harris County voters. And as a Mi Familia Vota community organizer, Torres helped register and educate high school students on how to vote.

“Hearing the stories of first-time voters, and the motivations young people have to improve our society, serve as constant inspirations,”said Torres, who’s also the Rice debate team captain and Urban Immersion coordinator.

Parker, too, has served as inspiration for Torres, who has accepted a post-graduation position with the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality as an American Voices Project research fellow.

“I have considered Annise Parker one of my idols since I first heard her speak at a Hanszen Academic Fellows Speaker Series in 2016,” Torres said. “Since then, I have been extremely impressed by her love of Rice and Houston and motivated by her lifelong mission to fight for diversity and equity.

“She began her public service as an undergrad, where she was committed to help fellow LGBTQ+ Owls find a community here at Rice,” Torres said. “I have tried to emulate her in my own organizations and I hope I have been half as successful.”

Kumar also praised Parker, calling her an “icon and an inspiration,” even as she admitted she never expected to win this year’s award.

“When I told my parents, they were so overjoyed,” Kumar said. “Most of that was general parental pride, but some of their joy originates from much deeper. For their daughter to be awarded for public service to her community and country is an honor of the highest order, because that service comes from the deeply ingrained sense of duty with which I have been raised — a sense that comes from our identity as Indian American.”

Navya Kumar (Photo by Daniel Davis)

Navya Kumar (Photo by Daniel Davis)

When she wasn’t busy performing with Basmati Beats, Rice’s South Asian a cappella group, Kumar was working to earn her certificate in civic leadership through the CCL and serving as a research assistant to dean of undergraduates Bridget Gorman on publications relating to LGBTQ+ identity and health.

After graduation, Kumar will attend Baylor College of Medicine, where she plans to marry her passion for public service with public health.

“I think we all perform acts of public service by being kind to one another, by being patient, by being empathetic,” Kumar said. “Public service will always be about community. Who wouldn’t call that work important?”

Community is one of the things Kumar will miss most about Rice, even as she’s excited to pursue a life of public service beyond the hedges.

“I have found such resolute, intelligent, clever, goofy and wonderful people here — and they are all within 15 minutes walking distance from me,” she said. “That physical closeness goes away post-Rice and I am starting to really feel what that means. However, I know the relationships I have made here will last for the rest of my life and I’m thankful for all the memories, the good and the bad, for shaping me into who I am today.”

Torres agreed.

“Rice has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “I never thought a person like me could have the privilege to attend an institution like Rice.

“I will miss the random conversations and projects I took on with my fellow brilliant, hard-working and inspiring Rice students the most,” Torres said. “These random small conversations at meals, on the way to class and even at parties, over any topic under the sun, have been the catalyst for my strongest friendships, and I am so thankful for that. Rice has shown me that life is much more fun and rewarding when I surround myself with individuals who inspire me to expand my intellectual curiosity.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.