A teacher and cultural ambassador, Pooja Ranade helps to build bridges and forge long-lasting relationships during her Fulbright fellowship in the United States.
Pooja Ranade with Grade 2 students at Nuner Fine Arts Academy at South Bend, Indiana. Photograph by Miranda Blankenbeker
Teaching Hindi to students at American educational institutions and sharing information about cultural practices have been fulfilling experiences for Pooja Sunil Ranade, an assistant professor of English. Her interest in literary-cultural studies and foreign affairs encouraged her to apply to the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program, to promote cultural diplomacy. The opportunity led her to Indiana.
“The University of Notre Dame is located in the quintessential midwestern town of South Bend, Indiana. The team at the university was warm and generous, and helped me to acclimatize to the American academic and professional ethos,” Ranade recalls.
Ranade and her colleagues initially stoked interest among the students by organizing open houses and workshops. “It was a challenge to start teaching from scratch but I was blessed with devoted students. They were eager to learn about India and developed a genuine interest in Hindi, which led to an incredible experience there.”
In addition to teaching, a big part of what Ranade attempted to do during her time in the United States was to diversity perceptions and engage people culturally. “Most of [the Indian stereotypes] stem from unawareness,” she says. “So my aim was to involve people in activities that share a more updated understanding of India.”
She found many American students inquisitive about Hindi and other Indian languages due to the large Indian diaspora in the United States and India’s close ties with the country. They also want to understand Indian traditions and culture, beyond what is traditionally depicted in pop culture.
“My students [became] my strongest allies. They were eager to understand our [Indian] culture and lifestyle, and even corrected their parents about their ideas of India. When the local families invited me to be a part of their celebrations, such as for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, it was an opportunity to meet more people and correct uniformed impressions about India, if any,” Ranade says.
When choosing to learn Hindi, she says, “Some of my Notre Dame students were pursuing social sciences and literary studies and wanted to explore India for our rich heritage and history. The STEM students, on the other hand, were interested in visiting the technology sector, working in Indian medical charities, or studying medieval Indian architecture,” says Ranade. “Since it was a diverse group, our classes were dynamic, content-based, and designed to meet the needs of all students.”
During her time at Notre Dame, Ranade also taught basic Hindi at Clay International Academy and Nuner Fine Arts School. Ranade was able to interact with hundreds of students and teachers from kindergarten to sixth grade. She shared with them Indian history, music, art and Hindi language. She also tried to share information about other regions and cultures in India. “This proved to be a surreal and emotional experience. My young American students, who belonged to working class families and hadn’t been outside the US, were so enthusiastic and loving that they wanted to leave Indiana, and move to India at the end of the year!”
As a Fulbright Fellow, Ranade also took on the role of a cultural ambassador. She hosted Indian festivals such as Diwali, Eid, Holi, and Christmas, among others. She also helped organize the Panorama Festival, where they hosted discussions around the biases about culture across countries.
Ranade admits that there are still misconceptions about Indian culture. However, “India has changed drastically in the last twenty years,” she says. “Academic settings are more respectful and aware of the India of the 21st century. Still, some people tend to associate India with stereotypes generated by movies and media portrayals, including issues related to gender and class, food habits, or that all Indians only study information technology!”
Ranade feels that more action is needed to address the communication gaps. However, she believes that sharing cultural projects and promoting academic exchange can highlight the blend of inclusive traditional Indian culture.
FLTA participants teach native languages at an American university and help share information about their respective cultures. Indian participants teach Hindi or Urdu. Ranade taught Hindi at the University of Notre Dame in 2018 and 2019.
Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.