‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’-‘the world is one family’ : These were early morning Sanskrit chants to which I woke up, every day during summer holidays at my maternal grandmother’s home. As I grew up and grew inclined towards the sciences, I learned that, about the 98% similarity in genetic make up amongst human-beings across the planet. How much could a mere 2% variation in the gene pool make a difference? Surely we were all the very same?
The answer, as I learnt, from experience, is not in the affirmative. And this is for the better. The dangers of a singular view and perception are many, while a variety of opinions and colors add flavours to the community, wherein we reside.
“I am…” a series of adjectives can be used to define my being, forming my identity, portraying an auto-ethnography. Those 2% changes in genetic constitutions define me as a separate entity and differentiate me from my surrounding. These distinctions are what make me the person I am. I pen these words, in an attempt to identify my cultural ethnography and relate it to my experiences in the world of academe mostly through the eyes and mind of a learner, hoping to become a preceptor.
‘We are a world of many colors,
we are a world of many hues,
we are a world of many faces,
sharing many different views’
Born and brought up in a multicultural, multi lingual, vibrant democracy by the name of India, I was exposed to a diverse set of ideas, personas, personalities and beliefs. Twenty years later, I travelled across the seves seas, to the land of opportunities, to find the very same mixed pool of culture, thought, color, creed, race, language, belief…
For most part of my early childhood, I was, a Hindu girl, studying in a Christian convent, while my mother taught at an educational institution for higher education for muslim women, my grandfather tended towards Buddhism and my best friend came from a staunch Sikh family. As a five year old in the bustling city of New Delhi, India, I had religious pluralism covered. Right there! It was interesting to hear about a variety of views about the world I lived in. While my grandparents told me of a world born out of a lotus bloom off the navel of a deity, my prayer classes at school recounted stories of Adam and Eve, to top this, my father, a strong believer in science and a practicing doctor, recapitulated theories from Darwinism at the dinner table.
Having completed schooling, I decided to pursue my undergraduate studies in a college towards the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, close to 2500 miles away from home. As the climate changed, so did the language. While in India, it is expected of individuals to know three to four languages, the dialects between the northern and southern parts vary hugely.
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As a result, although my courses were held in English, many ‘after class discussions’ with the professors tended to stray towards a language which was unknown to me. The need to be able to adapt to survive, was now of prime importance. As I picked up bits and pieces of the language, so as to be able to converse with my professors ably in their preferred lingual choice.
In a class of 150 with a sex ratio of closely 1:20 in my classroom and 0:15 amongst the faculty, my romance with Mechanical Engineering blossomed. Engineering is not a popular choice for the fairer sex, even in the 21st century. Especially when it came to heavy machinery, dirt and grime laden mechanical workshops, mechanical was a big no, for most of my friends from high school, who opted to pursue alternate career options deemed more suitable. I strove to excel, determined to prove my mettle in this competition. I found my instructors largely belonged to two categories. Either they disapproved of my being around heavy machinery and the like, hoping to drive me towards the ‘softer’ computer sciences or bio-technology or they were exaggerated in their sympathy towards the ‘sole girl child’, gifting me marks for mere attendance.
Women are emerging in fields traditionally perceived to be male dominated. My pride lies in doing my bit to rid the world of the stilettoe-clad status quo. Gone are the days when feminine intelligence and aspirations shrouded behind a veil of ignorance of opportunities. I hope to be better myself as an engineer, so as to eventually enter academe, and popularize engineering as a discipline.
Having graduated in mechanical engineering, I was ready to take my relationship with engineering sciences to the next level. I travelled across the seven seas, in pursuit of doctoral study in mechanical engineering. It was the first time I was stepping outside my homeland. The racial pluralism of this huge continent makes me feel at home. I have been lucky to be in classrooms, which speak about global collaboration and exchange of ideas. I had heard about the concepts of global village, never had I felt it. While I sit in a classroom with 3 Koreans, 2 Germans, 3 Asians, 2 Americans, an Iranian instructor and a Mexican TA, I know that, if not anything, the dialog shall be enriching, and indeed it is.
In America, I broadened my definitions and allowed for more inclusion. I understood and appreciated the diversities and different-abilities in my environment, whether in the physical domain, the spiritual domain or with regards the mental facilities. I learnt of the importance of choice. I learnt that individuals with different belief systems could and should work together for the greater good of humanity. I learnt how to be an Ally. I was proud to be an ally.
A huge part of forming my character, the past year, has been the Honors Residential College, at VirginiaTech. This is one of its first kinds on VT campus. I have seen how residential learning communities gain from each individual’s inputs. The late night discussions, the soup sessions, music, the movie screenings, the group blogging initiatives, etc. have made me learn with my undergraduate peers, as they have in turn, learned from their conversations with me. I have spent evenings relishing warm soup, sitting down with friends from my ‘residential college’ (we dislike calling it dorm, for it is much more!), talking about knitting patterns and Faraday and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and traditions, all during one single sitting, all as part of one conversation. It is fascinating how conversations lead to topics which might be objectively quite unrelated! I have learned that a late midnight talk in the corridors, with a senior about a major, goes a much longer way than any classroom. It is when people are able to indulge in meaningful conversation, in a comfortable set up, that true education is nurtured. Having been associated with the Honors Residential College at VirginiaTech, and having resided amongst scholastically talented and driven individuals, who partake in ut-prosim has motivated me to go beyond my academics and in the past year as I have put in my little bit to build this global community that I am part of.
I was always given to believe the Gandhian philosophy of looking within ones ownself when seeking to bring about change. It was the past week, while attending a conference on emotional management by AEL, that I learned that introspection is enhanced by observation. To learn from ones own mistakes is one thing, but to learn from the mistakes of another and using that to better ones own behavior is also key to growth.
I have learned to be able to be more tolerant. As I heard my teachers in undergrad speak in languages alien to me, I realized the need to be consciously inclusive in my conversations with students, even in the non-formal sets ups beyond the school hours. I realized that accent is related to perception. What is ‘foreign’ to me, might be familiar to another and vice versa. We all speak with an accent, the key is to communicate thoughts. My best teachers have not been perfect orators, but they have been magnificent persons. I have learnt that humility is the biggest asset, when it comes to the classroom. I tend to respect a teacher who takes the time and effort to learn about a topic, rather than the one whose answers are born from ignorance and arrogance.
While it is true that I have not had any formal experience in engaging a classroom, I have been involved with teaching all through high school as well as during my undergrad. In India, it is not an common or expected of engineering students to take up summer teaching internships, while I was pursuing my education there. As a result, most of my work experience was beyond the four walls of the classroom.
However, these have been non-formal engagements, as indian educational institutions do not really have the concept of TAs or GTAs. I have also sought to teach in many a voluntary capacity to high-schoolers and middle-schoolers. These opportunities were in mostly STEM education related domains to monetarily underprivileged children during a summer break in my freshman year as as an undergrad as well as a Mathematics instructor for a group of about 13 students from a armed forces-family background. These needed the patience, persistence, commitment and discipline that a teacher in a ‘formal’ set up may be required to contribute.
As an aspirant of the world of academe, I can envision a class wherein the students formulate their own set of opinions, as soon as I walk into the classroom. ‘Asian’ ‘woman’ ‘soft-spoken’ ‘lenient’ ‘strict’ …I know that I shall be scrutinized and put through many a different lists, each of which would be additions to my ‘I am’ s, but more than anything, it would add to my own auto-ethnography, defining myself, ten years hence…
*this essay was submitted by the author as an assignment as part of GRAD 5104 : Contemporary Pedagogy auto-ethnography essay submission*