Spotlight: Pooja Ranade, India to U.S.A

Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like during or after their Fulbright grant. This month, Andrés Morana, a 2021-2022 Researcher to Jordan, spoke with Pooja Ranade, a 2018-2019 Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant from India about her exciting journey to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, U.S.A.

Editor’s note: Some responses were edited for clarity.

1. Why did you decide to apply to Fulbright? Why FLTA?

I was familiar with the Fulbright Program as a graduate student, and meant to apply once I started teaching. I had been teaching English and World Literatures in India, and felt this would be a perfect time to widen my academic, professional, and personal horizons.

The Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program, in particular, is for young teachers of English, who wish to engage with American academia and culture as well as teach our native languages at US universities. It was appealing to me as it is a prestigious fellowship that would allow me to explore new places and cultures while being part of a global collective experience. 

Pooja drawing Mehendi Henna designs for Nuner Grade II students

2. Where were you based, what organization were you affiliated with, and why did you choose that location?

I was affiliated with the University of Notre Dame (ND), a private research university in Indiana, not too far from from Chicago. When I had to rank my top five preferences for universities, [at first] Notre Dame wasn’t even listed [as an option]. But the day before I had to send my final rank choices to the Indian Fulbright Office, they added it, and I felt it was meant to be. 

ND has a stunningly beautiful campus, offers great academic programs and interdisciplinary courses, and has a Catholic background (I attended Catholic school for twelve years in India) — so I was confident that ND would be a good fit. I was really happy to be placed there!

3. Tell us a bit about where you’re from, your hometown, and how different it was from your time in Indiana

“Honestly, I didn’t feel a huge difference between India and Indiana.”

I was born in Solapur, Maharashtra but studied and worked in Pune, Maharashtra. Pune is a college town, which is quite similar to Notre Dame/South Bend, and has loads of student centric activities, which has a familiar and homely feel to it. The only major difference was the weather.

Summer is long and harsh in my hometown, and temperatures rise to over 110 Fahrenheit, while ND receives heavy snowfall for 5 months and has a polar vortex (-44 F in Jan, 2019). It took some time to acclimatize, but I like winters, and walking around the frozen lakes on campus, engaging in snow fights, learning to ice skate, and building my first snowman were memorable experiences. 

Pooja by a frozen lake on campus after the polar vortex!

4. What did a typical workday look like for you?

Fulbright FLTAs fulfill several roles—we are instructors and teaching assistants for our native language, take coursework as graduate students, and host events as unofficial cultural ambassadors of our countries.  Usually, my day would start with an 8 AM meeting with the supervisor and other FLTAs, I would then teach a Hindi class, attend my grad classes, and either do peer tutoring, office hours, language tables, or community engagement, [depending on] that day’s schedule. 

Depending on my semester workload, I was a part-time research assistant with a professor, and spent time teaching/volunteering at two local schools in South Bend. Our FLTA group often spent late evenings at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center for music recitals, movies and theatre events, or watching games at the stadiums–ND has fabulous Football, Basketball and Ice Hockey teams. [Afterwards, I would] return to [the] campus apartments by 10 PM, prepare plans/assignments for the next day or video call my family back home.

Pooja engaging with the community at Clay International Academy (left) and introducing students to Indian costumes

5. You mentioned volunteering, how else did you get involved in your community outside of day to day FLTA duties?

Community engagement was an integral aspect of my assignment at ND. My supervisor, Professor Brian O’Conchubhair always encouraged us to meet students and families in the local community. Thanks to the built-in program at ND, I could volunteer with Grade II students at Nuner Fine Arts School throughout the year, and K-6 students at Clay International Academy for one semester, where I introduced them to Hindi and Indian culture.

The students were so eager to learn about the “Real India,” our history, and traditions, different from glitzy Bollywood movies or other extreme documentaries. It was emotional to share my stories of a changing, modern India and being a part of the community outside of the university was a lovely, heart-warming experience.

6. You previously shared an experience where you felt “lost” while traveling; were there other challenges you faced in the US? How did you overcome or adjust to them?

I would say that the Fulbright journey is a collection of beautiful, transformative moments. 

I decided to [take] my experience of getting lost in the Smokies while traveling – a stressful moment – [as a reminder] to always look for the positives at the end of any experience.

Pooja hiking in the Smokies

Notre Dame hosts a large number of FLTAs (12 of us, from countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America). The initial challenge was overcoming the perceived biases and “communication gaps”, which we soon did, by being honest with each other. Learning about different cultures and adjusting to different working styles often brought up discussions on a vast array of ideas and topics. In the Fulbright Program, everyone is respectful, wants to adjust, to learn and to grow. Finding friendships and this extended global family (including the 450 FLTAs I met during orientation and conferences), [was possible] by simply opening ourselves to the unknown.

[Another challenge was when] I was returning to Chicago from a conference at UPenn in Philadelphia, just two days before the end of my grant in May, 2019. Two passengers (next to me), were drunk and making snide, offensive remarks directed at me. One of the flight attendants noticed this and warned them about their behavior. The flight attendant apologized that I had to go through this experience and shifted me next to a kind, elderly couple. At 30,000 feet in American airspace, I, a foreign female student, was helped by complete strangers and made to feel safe. To feel safe in a different country transformed the way I thought of the US and transformed my outlook towards everything. Given the times we live in, this incident forms the lasting impression of what the US, my home away from home, will always mean to me. What came across as a challenge in the beginning changed me for the better at the end.

7. Can you share what your current experience/career is, and how your Fulbright experience influenced your career choice or trajectory?

I was an Assistant Professor of English before taking up the Fulbright grant, and I returned to teaching English at FLAME University, Pune. I have also become more proactive with spreading information about the Fulbright Program to students from small towns, and have helped prospective candidates in their applications. I hope to return to the US for a graduate program sometime in the future.

8. What do you miss the most?

ND is a tight knit community and everyone is a part of the university family, regardless of where we come from. Our American friends, professors and the International Students Office group invited us to their homes for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners so we wouldn’t feel alone during the holidays, and joined us for all the Indian/Asian/African festivals we celebrated, and I really miss that bonhomie.

Pooja celebrating Holi with fellow FLTAs

I miss meeting my friends from the US and attending all the events hosted at ND, more so now, with the pandemic. From attending a Notre Dame game with 80,000 screaming Irish fans and the day long tailgating to watching a live opera, or going out for weekend trips with my Fulbright friends, cooking and dancing together are now memories we relive only through pictures and our zoom calls! 

Pooja at a Chicago Blackhawks Ice Hokey game in the Notre Dame stadium with 80,000 other fans!

9. Why would you encourage Indians or other prospective awardees to apply for the Fulbright program?

Fulbright is a life changing journey, and Indian students, young teachers and scholars should definitely apply. [Fulbright] provides connections that otherwise wouldn’t be formed, develops leadership skills and enables one to become a global citizen. Fulbright offers the chance to meet educators and teachers who believe in the same things we do, take up coursework at amazing universities and also gives an immersive cultural and academic American experience.

Pooja with the Notre Dame FLTA team and supervisor

Pooja Sunil Ranade is an Assistant Professor of English Language and Literatures, and has taught in Colleges affiliated to Pune University and Solapur University in India. Pooja is an interdisciplinary scholar, and holds MA in English and MA in Political Science, and Diplomas in French and Spanish.  She was a Fulbright FLTA at the University of Notre Dame in 2018-19, where she taught Hindi, and actively engaged in community outreach projects. After finishing her grant, Pooja returned to teaching English in India, and takes pride in introducing students to the Fulbright Program.

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