Tag Archives: Fulbright

Back From my American Fulbright Adventure

“ Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

A year ago from today, I was introduced to the Fulbright, a scholarship that not only altered the course of my life but jolted my very core into wakefulness as if I were dormant all this while.

I am an English Literature major. The idea of putative ownership of languages, particularly European, has always disquieted me. In the course of my education, I had been questioned numerous times about my choice of studying the language of the ‘colonizers’. I strongly believe that it is the need of the hour to make the national borders porous so that languages and cultures can invade new spaces. What drew me to Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship, beside the obvious reason of fostering cultural diversity, was the opportunity to instill the idea in American students that Hindi-Urdu is as much theirs as English is mine even though they are both culturally connotative. 

THE AMERICAN CLASSROOM NORMS 

In Delhi, where I come from, there is hierarchy in classrooms. The teacher is the boss the students look up to. More often than not, this hierarchy is so intense that the students do all in their power to gratify the ‘boss’ in order to climb up the score ladder. Teaching in an American classroom was the biggest gap that I encountered and happily bridged. A typical American classroom is a discursive dwelling where students challenge everything one asserts. The concept of lecturing is a thing of the past and has been replaced by dialogue. 

During my training at University of Oregon, I picked up the ‘American nod’ and soon found myself motivating students through such gestures. However, the freedom exercised in classrooms is not always favorable. I was often distracted by the sounds of munching of chips and sipping of coffees. Since Americans are highly sensitive to discouragement, I had to constantly weigh my words while communicating to the student that he/she needs to work harder. 

In a nutshell, Fulbright gave me the best of both worlds. Having inculcated the tools from both the teaching methodologies and shunning away the norms that are gnawing the education system in both the countries, I stand taller as an instructor today.

THE SOCIAL NORMS 

Never before had I encountered the practice of smiling at random people and enquiring about their well-being. The systematic queues before boarding a bus, the doors held open for the next person to enter, no honking, exercising compassion as if it were a collective norm, the tipping system were all daily conducts that initially got me by surprise but soon enough, I inculcated them for good. I often remonstrated against the American metric system in jest—“Why can’t they follow the measurements and date writing like the rest of the world?” My American friends guffawed and the Internationals sympathized flippantly. 

I come from a circular culture that practices humility when one talks about oneself. America being a linear one practices straightforwardness. People talk of their achievements uninhibitedly (The Americans say ‘If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?’) On the first week in the U.S, when my colleague offered a ride back home as my house was on her way, I denied the first time in modesty, expecting her to insist or ask a second time. To my surprise, I took a train despite leaving the office at the same time as her. That was my first well-learnt lesson on linear communication among the many that followed.

THE FULBRIGHT FAMILY 

The experiences recounted would be tasteless if I were to skip The Fulbright Family that awaits with open arms as soon as one lands in the U.S. Accomplished scholars from over 160 countries build a home together, cementing bonds by finding commonalities in differences for at the heart of it all, we stand to be humans before ambassadors of our respective countries. We contribute in shrinking the world and making it a better place every step of the way. A sense of reassurance envelops me knowing that I have well wishers scattered all over the globe — France, Israel, Spain, Korea, Taiwan and myriad of other countries! An Argentinean FLTA, elucidating how histories must be buried and a new start made, said to me, “I’ll miss our European friends the most. The ones who conquered our lands once but today they conquered our hearts.” These words edged in my mind as soon as they were spoken. 

Arpita Sahai is a Fulbright scholar at Boston University who pursued B.A.(Hons.), M.A and M.Phil in English Literature, bagging the “Academic Achievers Award” for her outstanding performance. As a translator, she is passionate about pushing regional texts across borders and making them accessible to the English speaking reader. Fulbright FLTA was an offshoot of her passion. Arpita wishes to acknowledge the encouragement of Dr. Meenakshi Pawha in her path.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

Of Bridges Crossed: My Fulbright Experience

I am an executive coach, motivational speaker, senior corporate trainer & English Announcer with the Overseas Division of All India Radio. I was also the youngest communication instructor of the award-winning all-women cabin crew of India’s largest airline. 

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.