Photo by Sara Wolfley
Paravi Das likes to live her life amped up and ramped up. Singing, dancing, and excelling in graphic design and performance, she is the star of her own story. Like most uplifting stories, however, it hasn’t been a constant upward trajectory. There have been bumps in the road, one in particular that seemed to bring her dreams crashing down just as she seemed ready to grab them.
During her junior year of high school, Das joined SkillsUSA while simultaneously enrolling in a graphic communications program at the Academies of Loudoun (Va.). Always an artist, Das admits she applied to the program on a whim. That “whim” became a foundational decision in her life. “My communication skills are the tools I developed most through SkillsUSA,” she says.
Attending a new career and technical high school, adopting a new class schedule, joining a new student organization … that’s already a lot on a 17-year-old’s plate. For Das, however, that wasn’t even the main course. During this time of transition, she was also busy preparing to audition for the theater program at the highly selective University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and audition for a little television show called “American Idol.” We warned you: “Amped up and ramped up” is her style.
Das had dreamed of being on American Idol since she was a little girl watching the show with her family. Actually auditioning for the show — a process that took many months — was a surreal experience. First, Das was chosen for a video audition based on a submission she made via Instagram. After passing a second audition with the show’s executive producers, she was invited for a third in Savannah, Ga., for the celebrity panel of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. There, Das sang “When We Were Young” by Adele (a personal hero for Das) and “Price Tag” by Jessie J. She also painted individual portraits of the judges and gifted them during her audition to showcase her artistic abilities.
The audition was a rousing success, and Das was voted through to the “Hollywood Week” portion of the show (the first round after celebrity auditions). The path to her dreams seemed clear. Then came that bump in the road. Actually, it more like a sinkhole. Immediately before walking on stage in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, Das learned her dad had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. Das was devastated, and her performance understandably suffered. “I completely bombed my audition,” she says, “and I was cut from the show right there.”
It was a humbling moment for a young woman with such big dreams to see them suddenly snatched away. Combined with the continued worries about her father’s health, Das’ once seemingly unquenchable fire for life had been reduced to embers. Drawing … singing … performing … all the things that always brought her joy seemed flat, dull, empty. “I lost my dream just as I had it in my hands,” she says. “But when I almost lost my dad, I also lost my passion for what I did.”
Das returned home feeling completely defeated. “Instead of focusing on how far I made it, I felt ashamed to have been cut,” she admits. But very soon, SkillsUSA would give her the strong voice and platform that eluded her with “American Idol.” Her family, school and SkillsUSA became priorities for Das as her dad worked toward recovery, and she credits her SkillsUSA advisor Pam Smith for becoming an incredible mentor in her life. Smith encouraged Das to try new activities, including a run for state office. Das found that her theater background helped with candidate speeches, as did her willingness to take risks. She remembers the election so clearly. “The moment I won state officer, when I stepped up on stage. That moment was 10 million times better than the moment when I got voted through to Hollywood by celebrity judges on ‘American Idol,’” she beams.
As the 2018-19 SkillsUSA Virginia high school president, Das embraced several key roles at SkillsUSA’s 2019 National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC) in Louisville, Ky. She was selected as the national anthem singer for the Opening Ceremony, she won the NLSC T-shirt Design Challenge, and she also led the Virginia state delegation. It was an event that she won’t soon forget. “I saw myself standing in a red blazer with a state officer pin at the end of the year, and I can honestly say I had never grown so much in such a short period of time as I did through these opportunities.”
Asked to reflect on what she gained from SkillsUSA, Das says, “I learned to look at myself differently. I truly believed in myself for the first time, because I saw that others believed in me. I was comfortable leading a choir rehearsal or teaching a new skill in Adobe, but my leadership experience never extended past the arts. Now I was representing something bigger than my own field, so I felt more responsibility. I was the happiest and most confident I have ever been, because I was surrounded by a sea of red blazers. These members wanted me to succeed just as much as I wanted each of them to shine. I learned that no matter what color blazer I wear, I can be and do anything if I put my mind and heart into what I wish to achieve.”
Reigniting the Fire
Das gained entrance to UCLA in March 2019. The prestigious performing arts university has a very low acceptance rate, even for the most talented students. Applying meant more auditions, this time in New York City. But Das is used to performing well under pressure. Now finishing her freshman year, the musical theater major plans to minor in entrepreneurship and music industry. She landed a job as a graphic designer with the UCLA media team and credits SkillsUSA for helping her get the coveted slot. This summer, she will participate in a graphic design internship in Virginia before returning to school in the fall.
As for that “unquenchable fire” that characterized her approach to life … it certainly seems to be back. “I want to perform on Broadway. I want to record albums. I want to be in the movies. I want to be a Hollywood star. I want to do everything,” she exclaims. “But I also want to continue with graphic design. Maybe I can even design album covers.”
Das is grateful to the advisors, role models and mentors who helped “set me on a path that I don’t think I would have ever been able to fathom if not for this organization.” Her family has played a huge role in her development, too, especially her 24-year-old brother, Sayak, a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music. “My parents immigrated from India,” she says. “[My brother and I] get our ear for music from our dad and our eye for art from our mom. My brother had to learn how everything worked in America and then teach my parents and me. When your parents don’t know how high school works, how SATs work, how college applications work, you figure out a lot for yourself. He was always there, paving the path for me. He inspires me so much,” Das says. “He has the courage to pursue his dream in a place that was foreign to us. He’s the first in our lineage to graduate from high school in America, to graduate from college in America. It’s an amazing feat for my family.”
Das remains incredibly busy and credits SkillsUSA with teaching her effective time management, organization, responsibility, commitment and work ethic, elements of the SkillsUSA Framework that will serve her well in any field. “Being a theater kid, I was comfortable speaking to an audience, but SkillsUSA taught me to develop and articulate my own thoughts and opinions, rather than reading lines from a script. I learned how to communicate my own morals and words better than any scene I’ve ever performed, and that is something that will take me far in life, no matter what my path. Life doesn’t always go the way you planned, but you regroup. And, who knows where life and my music is going to take me?”
SkillsUSA Virginia Farewell Speech: https://bit.ly/2VQ5VMf
YouTube American Idol journey Part 1:
YouTube American Idol journey Part 2:
Cover of Fly Me to the Moon:
Cover of Nora Jones: