By Published: May 3, 2022

Kavya Kannan graduates with a BA in political science summa cum laude and majors in economics and international affairs; she is the A&S outstanding graduate for spring 2022

Kavya Kannan translates her values into action. Lots of action.

She is the first person of South Asian descent to serve as student-body president at the University of Colorado Boulder. In that role, she championed efforts to increase women’s access to tampons and pads on campus, and she created a fund for sexual-assault survivors, which was supported by a 5-kilometer footrace that she organized last month.

As she researched her honors thesis, she created an original dataset of sex trafficking and other indicators in India, research that can help explain varying rates of sex trafficking in India. On Thursday, May 5, she will graduate with a degree in political science, summa cum laude.

Image of Kavya Kannan posing for a photoshoot in graduation cap and gown.

At the top of the page: Kavya Kannan will graduate with a triple major in political science, economics and international affairs (Photos by Ellie Johnson). Above: Kannan enjoys a sunny day below the Flatirons. Photos courtesy of Kavya Kannan.

Kavya is also a triple major, so she will graduate with majors in economics and international affairs in addition to political science. And she has been designated as the spring 2022 outstanding graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences—the first outstanding graduate to complete her degree with a triple major.

In a recent interview with James W.C. White, acting dean of the college, Kannan noted that she began her CU Boulder college career as a double major—in political science and economics, both disciplines that captured her interest.

But her advisor noted that she was only two classes away from earning a major in international affairs.

“I was like, OK, sure. I have the time,” she recalled, adding that she’s grateful that she heeded the advice.

She also had the time and motivation to join student government. She served on its appellate court for two years but wanted “more agency to tackle issues and frustrations I had faced on campus” and decided to run for the top executive post. “Serving as student body president is a really big honor for me, to take on this responsibility and represent my community,” she observed.

“There are a lot of girls that I mentor that look just like me that don't think that leadership or politics is an area that they can influence,” she said. “So it's really important for me to break that door open and show them that these are realms that we can not only occupy but can be really influential in.”

Serving as student body president has been gratifying and has reflected the “intersection of all my identities as a woman, as a marginalized woman, and just as a student on this campus,” she added.

Kannan traced her desire to do an honors thesis on sex trafficking partly to a first-year course in Russian politics with Sarah Sokhey, associate professor of political science. Kannan wrote a policy brief on sex work and prostitution in Russia. That work eventually got published.

Later, she studied India and the United States with a comparative lens in a class taught by Tom Zeiler, professor of history, and a paper she wrote then was also published.

Sex trafficking in India garnered Kannan’s interest not just as a woman but as an Indian woman, she said. “Sex trafficking is horrible in India, unfortunately. When I go back to visit in India, I have seen victims of sex trafficking on the streets, and it's very scary because, as a woman, living in India, that that very much could have been my reality.”

Kannan was born and reared in Denver, but her parents emigrated from India. “I've had the privilege of attending higher education institutions, but not a lot of women back in India have had the privilege of doing that.”

“It's really important for me to study this problem,” she added.

Serving as student body president is a really big honor for me, to take on this responsibility and represent my community.”

In her research, Kannan found that women who lived in areas of India with lower rates of sex trafficking also lived in areas with higher education levels generally, with better anti-HIV education, and with more understanding that condoms help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Additionally, women who had the ability to make decisions in the home—for instance, as indicated by their having their own bank accounts—were less likely to become drawn into sex trafficking, which, Kannan notes, is a form of slavery.

After graduation, Kannan intends to take a gap year or two as a “breather.” She’s considering several positions in the financial sector, including being part of the Leadership Fellows Program with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Immediately after graduation, she’s traveling to Costa Rica for a week, then Europe for a month.

In the long term, Kannan plans to go to law school, probably an Ivy League institution on the East Coast. There, she said, she might focus on international criminal law or international human-rights law.