Soumya with students in India during her Fulbright experience.
“I chose the University Scholars Program (USP) particularly for the emphasis on experiential and extracurricular learning and holistic development. I believe that most real learning takes place outside the classroom and the USP proved it for me.”
In this edition of the Alumni Spotlight, we had the opportunity to chat with Soumya Nadabar (Class of 2016) about her experiences after graduation as a Fulbright Fellow and then as a National Geographic Student Expedition Leader in India. Soumya earned degrees in International Studies and Economics. During her time as a Fulbright Fellow, Soumya worked on a variety of projects including English language education. Once her fellowship ended, she backpacking through Asia. She credits her time in the University Scholars Program as helping her understand the value of experiential education and putting her education into action. Read on to learn more about her experiences in and around India.
USP: Soumya! It seems like so long ago that we were out at Raft Swamp Farms learning all about sustainable agriculture. And now you’ve graduated and lived in India for quite some time. We want to hear all about it! For starters, tell us how you decided to apply to the Fulbright Fellowship and how you ended up in India.
SN: I applied for the Fulbright right after returning from a summer interning abroad outside of Delhi, India. I was a project intern at an NGO called the Sehgal Foundation where we focused on establishing life skills education centers for young women in rural communities. Upon returning, I was drawn to the idea of returning to India through the avenue of education and immersing myself in a community.
USP: So you’d had some exposure to the country and felt drawn back to it? That’s awesome. What exactly did your fellowship entail? Where were you specifically and what did you do?
SN: For my Fulbright fellowship, I was placed in Dehradun, India, which is a comparatively small city in the foothills of the Himalayas. As an English Teaching Assistant, my main role was to teach conversational English four days a week at my placement school, which was an NGO school in a nearby village. While I taught English, I also got involved with other school activities, such as planning our Christmas day celebration, mentoring and coaching students for competitions in debate, elocution, and the Model UN, and participating in the schoolwide badminton competition for staff. My kids loved learning about American holidays, so I made sure to share about our holiday traditions as well, including dressing up as a witch for Halloween and as Santa Claus for Christmas. Apart from this, I volunteered one day per week at one of two NGOs – one which provided after-school programming for at-risk kids in an informal living settlement and the other which focused on waste reduction and sustainability in the city.
USP: Wow – it sounds like you were involved in a little bit of everything, as well as becoming part of the community. That’s great. Now, after you finished the Fellowship, you spent some time traveling around Asia. How did you get plugged into the National Geographic Student Expedition?
SN: After my Fulbright grant, I backpacked around Asia for two months. Towards the tail end of my travels, I found out through a Fulbright friend that National Geographic Student Expeditions was looking for leaders to staff their upcoming India expedition. My role was to teach anthropology as well as be a general trip leader while traveling India for three weeks with high school students. At the end of the trip, students would present final projects in either anthropology or photography. I jumped at the opportunity, though I had never imagined I’d be back in India so soon.
USP: So you were immersed in travel deeply. What was a typical day like as a National Geographic Student Expedition Leader?
SN: It’s hard to say what a typical day was like – for this particular trip, our days were all so varied! For the Himalayan portion, our activities were centered around the NGO school we were based in. On a typical day we would wake up early, join the school for breakfast, break out into our project groups, practice English conversation with the kids, have lunch at school, and maybe go on a village hike. We also did a three-day trek through small Himalayan villages in Ladakh, did scavenger hunts with locals in ancient neighborhoods of the city, and of course, visited the bazaars. Every day we set aside some time for lessons, and later, for students to work on their projects. In the Golden Triangle portion, we typically had very busy days and we moved around a lot. We visited an elephant sanctuary, drove through a leopard safari with a National Geographic wildlife expert, climbed through ancient forts, did ethnographic research in the markets, and of course, sweat copiously the whole way through!
USP: That sounds like so much fun! You basically helped high school students experience the best parts of India and the best way – experientially. I bet you also learned a lot during your time abroad. What would you say you learned about yourself while you were there?
SN: My time in India was very humbling. For the first month, I bumbled my way through putting together basic requests in the local language. As I learned Hindi, it became easier, and I really came to understand the importance of language in understanding culture. I was also overwhelmed by the warmth with which I was received by my school and community. It taught me a greater appreciation for human relationships and the cultural and natural richness of India. This year marked a lot of firsts for me. I bought a moped and learned how to drive it. I backpacked and traveled solo for the first time, with often no more than a plane ticket. I learned a new language from scratch, including how to read and write a totally different script. I bargained like a boss. It was a huge exercise in independence and overcoming challenges and growth.
USP: You did some serious “thinking and doing”! We’re so proud of you. Now, there are likely students reading this that would love to get involved in similar opportunities; what are some important things for them to know in order to prepare?
SN: It is not easy. Being part of a program like the Fulbright demands humility, adaptability, and critical thinking. It requires resilience. It’s also an awesome way to become part of a community and build meaningful relationships and foster cross-cultural understanding – ultimately that’s what the Fulbright is about. For NGSE, it’s a very demanding position. You have to be on 24/7. Students look to you to model appropriate behavior, whether that be respect for local culture, excitement for trying something different and new, or critical thought about power dynamics between Westerners and locals. Many students have highly impactful experiences, particularly going to a country such as India, but it’s up to the leader to promote personal development in students and facilitate opportunities for growth and learning.
USP: It is indeed serious business. You’re essentially serving as an ambassador of the United States. Would you say that your time in the University Scholars Program prepared you for these experiences?
SN: I chose the USP particularly for the emphasis on experiential and extracurricular learning and holistic development. I believe that most real learning takes place outside the classroom and the USP proved it for me. Through the USP, I went on my first outdoor expedition, multi-day kayaking at Bear Island, visited my first sustainable farm and learned about composting toilets and beekeeping. I also got to take a class with USP Assistant Director Chester Brewer, who is singularly gifted at teaching us how to explore.
USP: Yes, keeping the exploration mindset helps us stay open to opportunities as they arise. What would you say is the best bit of advice you’ve ever received?
SN: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou didn’t give this advice to me personally (though it would’ve have been cool if she did!).