FLTA Spotlight: Neelu, India to U.S.A

Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Researcher to the U.S., spoke with Neelu, a 2014-2015 Foreign Language Teaching Assistant from India about her exciting journey to Johns Hopkins University, U.S.A.

Neelu sitting under a cherry blossom outside the Johns Hopkins building.

1. Why inspired you to apply for the (FLTA) Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant Program? Why did you choose to go to Johns Hopkins University?

Being a linguist, I loved language learning and teaching, which inspired me to apply for the FLTA program. When I learnt that this program allowed for auditing/crediting courses of our choice from leading US universities along with the opportunity of being an ambassador of our language, culture, and country, I couldn’t resist applying for it.

Besides being one of the best universities in the world, Johns Hopkins University offered a course in Forensic Linguistics which aligned with my Ph.D. research area. As a result, I ranked this university as my first preference and fortunately, I was allotted Johns Hopkins.

2. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an FLTA?

In the first week of the program, I joined the orientation at Stanford University along with other FLTAs. In spite of a tight schedule interspersed with seminars and activities, the jet-lagged FLTAs were full of enthusiasm and were speed networking on the beautiful campus of the university. By the end of the week, we had already made friends.

Neelu in a blue saree, attending the Orientation program at Stanford University.

However, when I came to my host institution, loneliness started creeping in and I started feeling homesick. This is when my supervisor, Mr. Wafadar Hussain, came to my rescue. Even before I had arrived in the States, he acted as a guardian and ensured I had suitable accommodation by visiting places I had selected on Craigslist. He somehow had the intuition that I craved for homemade Indian food and so he would prepare quintessential Indian biryani on several occasions. I am very fortunate that I got to work with him.

The second challenge was [learning how to navigate American culture]. The first day I moved to the house in Washington D.C., I invited a housemate into my room. 5 minutes after he left, I received a text from him which stated that in the United States people do not invite strangers inside their room.

In another incident, my team was going to perform a dance at a conference. Since we were getting ready for the performance, we were late for dinner by 30 mins. We were not served dinner that night and I learnt how the notion of time differed between cultures. Gradually, under Wafadar Ji’s guidance, I got a grip on the cultural norms and things got better.

Neelu at the Diwali Dinner with her supervisor and students.

3. Have your experiences in the United States changed you? What opportunities came your way as an FLTA in the U.S.?

Professionally, I got to interact with culturally diverse audiences and hence I developed an understanding of the concept of inclusivity in a classroom. I learnt contemporary tools and techniques used in classroom teaching, too.
Networking with approximately 500 FLTAs from around the globe was a huge opportunity. After returning to our home countries, we also organized a ‘culture in a box’ initiative where each FLTA sent a culturally significant gift to another one. I sent my box to the FLTA in France and I received one from Argentina.

Neelu on one of her adventures at the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

On a personal level, my traveling experience was quite enriching. Hopping through almost 14 states in the US, I gained knowledge about different ethnicities and various practices in different parts of the country. I would like to mention, here, that the money I spent on my travels was exclusively from my savings from the Fulbright grant. This information may be encouraging for individuals who would be keen on joining this program in the future.

I participated in an event held on ‘International Happiness Day’ where we gave free hugs to strangers, wishing them well, giving them compliments, also listening to them if they wanted to share their struggles/ issues with us. All the members in our group were kind and positive and believed that little empathy goes a long way. I was deeply influenced by this episode.

4. How different was life at Johns Hopkins as compared to Jawaharlal Nehru University, India?

In JNU, we have an excellent campus life and we learn life lessons inside and outside the classroom. We live in close proximity with your friends and teachers who are available for discussions at any hour.

Neelu at the Holi celebration at ISKCON Temple, Maryland.

Johns Hopkins doesn’t offer such a campus life, but it still provides enough opportunities to connect with students and teachers outside the classroom by organizing events like language table or happy hour where we can interact with native speakers of various languages. I felt that in JHU the institution and the student community worked in tandem to create frequent and diverse kinds of opportunities for language learning in a natural setting. I feel these practices could be adopted by the language departments in India, too.

5. How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?

My first community interaction started from the house I lived in. It was a three-story house with 10 bedrooms and was around 60-70 years old. The first day I cooked in the basement kitchen, I decided to make Maggi (EXTREMELY popular instant noodles in India), and the extra-sensitive smoke alarm turned on and almost everyone in the house came down to the kitchen. Yes, that’s how I met my housemates. They were from different parts of the world; Africa, China, Malaysia, Egypt, Vietnam, and also from the United States and so on. It was a beautiful house with a huge living area cum library where we used to watch rental movies, play board games, or chat for long hours. The aroma of various cuisines would always fill our kitchen and no one shied away from sharing their food. Through these mates, I connected with many families. They introduced me to their events and festivals and I introduced them to several Indian festivals.

Neelu attending the language and culture exchange program at Johns Hopkins.

Later, I met the other FLTAs who had also joined Johns Hopkins University as TAs for other languages. They were from Brazil, China, and Russia. Together, we made a small BRIC family, always there for each other. I was also a member of the Chai Club at Johns Hopkins where apart from cultural discussions and movie nights, we practiced and performed Bollywood dance.

6. Describe a typical day in your life as an FLTA.

My typical day as an FLTA started at 6 AM. After getting ready, I would hurriedly walk towards the metro-station with a peanut-butter-jelly sandwich in my hand. It would take me around one hour to reach my university. I would usually have 2-3 teaching classes, where I assisted my supervisor. Later I conducted a tutorial/language table and audited two classes in a day. Lunchtime was spent with BRIC family and other TAs. In between, I would prepare materials for the upcoming classes. Later, I would spend some time exploring the city. Since Washington D.C is full of outstanding museums, I made sure not even a single one went amiss. After that, I would go back home and prepare my dinner plus lunch for the next day. I would call it a day after reaching out to my loved ones in India.

Neelu at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

7. Did Fulbright fulfill your expectations? Why would you urge Indians to apply for the FLTA program?

To be honest, it was way beyond my expectation. When I applied for the grant, I only focused on academic and professional gains. But life in the US was much more than that.

Since India has a collectivist society, it emphasizes a lot on co-dependence. It’s not that easy in our culture, especially for girls. These few months made me realize my own potential by putting me into situations that pushed my limits and it has evolved me into becoming a fiercely independent person as opposed to being fairly dependent back home. I would urge every Indian, especially females to apply for the FLTA program because it not only looks bright on your resume but also makes you shine brighter as an individual. 

Neelu is a 2014-2015 Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Alumna from Ranchi in India. During her Fulbright tenure, she taught Hindi at Johns Hopkins University in USA. She is currently on faculty at the Department of English at Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab in India and she will soon be joining the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Lucknow on the faculty of Communications. She has a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India. 

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