My childhood dream
I am the only son of a brave single mother, an Army daughter, who brought me up by herself, overcoming every challenge that life threw at us. My dad, an eminent barrister, passed away when I was very young and since then, I have seen life’s trials through formative experiences. I belong to a family of nation builders; my paternal grandfather N.B. Laha was a freedom fighter who received the prestigious Tamara Patra from the Indian Prime Minister and my maternal grandfather received several medals for distinguished service in the Army. I always wanted to represent my nation abroad and that dream came true when I won the Fulbright scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world.
It has been an amazing experience to be representing India as a Fulbright scholar and cultural ambassador in the United States. I vividly remember my excitement when I my plane touched down in Portland, Oregon. I instantly fell in love with the beautiful city of Eugene, where I attended my summer orientation at the University of Oregon. I had a unique opportunity to meet so many people, from amazing professors to friendly fellow Fulbrighters from across the world. The evening of live country music next to the lake in a ranch setting shall remain etched in my memory forever. But most importantly, I held high the Indian flag, an honor that I had earned as a Fulbrighter.
As a Fulbright scholar, I am a faculty member at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.. Living, working and studying in Washington DC has been a very fulfilling experience. Teaching American students Hindi in the political capital of the world gives me a chance to project my country in a positive manner and promote the best that Indian culture has to offer.
My first days in America were spent in hunting for rental accommodation. There were occasions when I felt like I was Harry Potter sitting on his trunk, waiting for the Knight Bus to arrive! I stayed in hotels and guest houses, before I finally found an apartment. The bright side of this itinerant experience is that I managed to find a place, which is loated just 20 minutes from the White House.
When I first stepped into the classroom at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I immediately noticed how different the environment was, vis-a-vis India. Back home, students wouldn’t dare to eat sandwiches and sip on coffee while attending a lecture, but here this behavior was considered to be totally normal. Almost every student carries a Macbook with them and during the lecture, they are constantly taking notes. Teaching Hindi to career-oriented future diplomats and policy-makers means that I have to make my native language easy and interesting for my students. Grammar can be tricky, so I use a lot of examples. Some students are really interested to learn the correct intonation for sentences, so that they sound like a native speaker when in India. In fact, they want to pronounce each word perfectly, even though we native speakers often take the liberty to play around with the pronunciation of many words. Students take keen interest in South Asia and the geo-political developments there. While many students are “heritage learners,”- born to immigrant parents who want their children to learn Indian language and culture, there are others who seek to work in South Asia and are learning the language as it is crucial for their success. Being a cultural ambassador of my country, I strive to enhance their knowledge of the diversity in India, be it food, religion, culture, language or the surroundings. Moreover, I am a trained musician and singer, so I use old Hindi songs as a tool to explain language and culture.
In India, students often look up to teachers as the Guru, who takes the final decision about everything. Here in America, teachers are given a lot of respect, but students get an equal say in discussions. And they have the right to disagree with the professor’s view on a certain topic. In India, that’s something that might not be appreciated. Before a professor takes a final decision about assignments, it is important to negotiate buy-in from students in the class, keeping in mind their tight schedule and exams.
Studying American foreign policy, English and French at Johns Hopkins University has certainly contributed to my growth as an academic scholar in a big way. I felt very happy the day my English professor, a former US Ambassador, told me that I was a gifted speaker. I learnt advanced speaking techniques for panel discussions, press briefings, persuasive speeches and policy debates. The French classes at SAIS have helped me gain confidence as a novice French speaker and the song Je te le donne is one of my all-time favorites now! Attending panel discussions, conferences and events has become second nature to me.. I was proud to showcase Indian culture during the Fulbright mid-year conference, an event that brought together 400 Fulbright language teachers, where I even spoke to Assistant Secretary of State Ms. Marie Royce expressing my wish to meet the US President and that I aspire to become the Prime Minister of India in the future. She was very impressed and encouraged me to continue working towards my goal.
In the years to come, I shall remember celebrating Christmas night in Times Square, New York. To add to the excitement, I was able to give my mother the best birthday gift ever–an evening in Manhattan, on the world-famous Fifth Avenue, to be precise. The view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty was truly one to remember, as were the taste of the one-dollar pizza and the experience of travelling on the NYC subway. On the other hand, the Baltimore Harbor offered me the chance to enjoy fresh seafood and a chance to see submarines, ships and boats, all at the same place.
My time at Johns Hopkins University has been very eventful. I recently attended the India Initiative conference at Georgetown University, where I got a chance to meet the charismatic former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma and the historian Ramachandra Guha, among others. My experience as a champion debater was put to great use when I coached SAIS students who are participating in this year’s Hindi debate at Yale University. And to top it all, I was invited to speak as a panelist at the main campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I shared my Fulbright experience with current students, encouraging them to explore their interest in India through a Fulbright grant. At the end of my address, a student walked up to me. She was from Africa and told me that she could really connect with what I said and felt really inspired to do something for her country. The university now plans to make this an annual event and administrators thanked me for this idea.
My Fulbright year ends next month, but I shall take back with me an incredible experience, many fond memories and yes, a congratulatory letter from the US President. The initial culture shock, shopping at the supermarket, attending classes at SAIS, promoting my language and culture, stringing together words in French and excelling in my English classes – each experience has been valuable. The United States shall always have a special place in my heart, for it is a country that recognizes and rewards real talent.
Gaurav Laha is a Fulbright scholar working at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at email@example.com