Sandip Nirmel ’21 surprised his high school classmates their freshman year when he quietly stepped to the front of the room, stuffed bald eagle in hand.
Haley Tran and David Zhu ’21 — both of whom attended the Harker School alongside Nirmel — said they were not sure what to expect when Nirmel first announced he would be running for student council president. But when he used the stuffed eagle, Harker School’s mascot, to deliver an inspiring speech, they said they were convinced he would win.
“Nobody on the council ever memorized their speeches, they just read off a piece of paper. But he came in, no paper, fully prepared, full motions prepared with this stuffed eagle,” Tran said. “Nobody had it together, but he always did. He always knew what to say.”
He went on to serve as council president for three years and head the school’s student body as a senior.
Nirmel — who died Thursday after an extended illness — also earned a reputation for his consistently positive outlook and strong work ethic while at Harvard, according to his friends and classmates.
He had an enviable resume, both at Harker and at the College. Hailing from Northern California, Nirmel spoke three languages, researched oceanography, played golf, earned certificates in piano and violin, and explored artificial intelligence — all before he turned 20.
Zhu said that, in high school, Nirmel once ventured onto the tennis courts to try his hand at another sport. He immediately excelled.
“I had been playing tennis for four years and we had known him to be the golfer, because that's mainly what he did,” he said. “And then it turned out that he’s just magically really good at tennis, too.”
At Harvard, Nirmel concentrated in Computer Science with a focus in Mind, Brain, and Behavior; served as a case leader for the Harvard College Consulting Group; and worked on the campus engineering competition MakeHarvard.
His classmates said he was most notable for his humility and cheerfulness. Nirmel could easily switch between stoic seriousness and bright optimism.
During the summer, when many students forget classwork, Nirmel read computer science textbooks in preparation for his fall courses. Anne Marie Crinnion ’20, who worked with Nirmel on the Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior, wrote in an email that she “truly admired his work ethic.” Nirmel served as her vice chair this year while she led the group.
Crinnion and Elton G. Lossner ’19, who also worked with him in extracurriculars, both wrote in emails that Nirmel was “reliable.”
“I take on the toughest challenges and overcome them with a smile on my face,” Nirmel wrote on his LinkedIn page. “I live by a simple motto: ‘Why not?’”
He shone in non-academic pursuits, too. Dunster House Faculty Dean Sean D. Kelly wrote in an email that Nirmel’s sharp mind and kind personality were apparent even in brief conversations.
“We saw him regularly in the Dining Hall, where he met with his blockmates and friends for meals and study,” Kelly wrote. “By all accounts he was brilliant, but what you saw first when you talked with him was his kindness, warmth, and humility.”
While he lived in Dunster, Nirmel threw himself into house life — tossing frisbees, playing broomball, and laughing and studying in the dining hall with his friends.
Though the Dunster frisbee team lost every game this year, he was “always there with a smile and a point or two to score,” Crinnion wrote.
On Thursday, a few dozen College students and administrators gathered in the Dunster Junior Common Room to mourn Nirmel. Harvard Chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid helped lead the gathering, inviting attendees to write letters to Nirmel’s family and share recollections of his time at Harvard.
Abdur-Rashid said Thursday that the group’s memories of Nirmel will persist.
"In the Islamic tradition, we believe that when people have meaningful and beautiful encounters with other people, that those encounters are causes for the everlasting life of that person who has been taken from us,” he said. “That person is then given enduring life through the memories.”
Alex J. Yu ’21, a fellow Dunster sophomore who planned to live with Nirmel next year, wrote in an email that his time with Nirmel made the College an easier place to go to school.
“Sandip will always live on in my memory as part of what made Harvard feel like home,” he wrote.