The Challenge of Unlearning
Fulbright Teacher Exchange participant Sohini Das shares her experience of the exchange program and how it has influenced her personal and professional life.
We often talk about stepping into someone else’s shoes. My Fulbright Fellowship about a decade ago allowed me to do just that. On my Fulbright Teacher Exchange, I stepped into the shoes of Andrea Cermanski to teach 10th and 12th graders AP [Advanced Placement] English at the Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cermanski joined Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata. We were fortunate to also exchange our passions for contemporary dance and art within the school curriculum. I collaborated with several dance studios to create experimental dance vocabulary, while Cermanski communicated through pastels and water colors with Kolkata artists. Across continents, cultures, and some political landmarks, 2008-09 changed the lens through which we viewed the world.
Interestingly, a decade later, we are still located in the same cities in our countries. I find myself going strong as a Public Engagement Specialist at U.S. Consulate General Kolkata. Cermanski teaches art at the Academy for Technology and the Classics in Santa Fe. Every day, I look forward to meeting people, creating relationships, nurturing teams and being a part of global dialogues.
The opportunity to pursue a Fulbright Fellowship came at a critical juncture in my life. As a high school English teacher trapped in the monotony of “this is the way things need to be taught,” and an all-time personal low, I wanted to give myself a second chance.
Needless to say, Santa Fe was nowhere near the clichéd American Dream. Amidst the vast deserts and blue skies, my first white Christmas, discovering yoga as a cosmopolitan cult, I found new respect for myself and my country.
And so began my unlearning in the most wonderfully challenging way. I had not realized till then that teaching can be one of the most creative jobs. There, I was not catering to a set curriculum of 40-minute classes, but laying out a canvas for collaboration, critical thinking, and appreciation for individual learning styles. Whether it was the alleys of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” or Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” or Mohandas K. Gandhi’s “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” the textbooks were a medium to understand each other. I pushed myself physically by hiking for hours with my students, and I pushed myself emotionally. I learned to be non-judgmental. I learned empathy and acceptance. One 10th grader defied me almost every morning—he would yawn and go off to sleep, after lecturing me on the fact that the individual needs to be respected in the United States. When I gathered courage one day and sent the student out of the classroom, I realized I had created a mini-revolution—the bad boy had a big fan following! And when he ended with top grades at the end of the semester, sheepishly handing me a reconciliatory letter, we both knew we had won our battles and emerged stronger. The journey of discovering the beauty of human connections has continued ever since.
My strong interest in issues related to gender and empowerment is the direct result of my Fulbright experience. I understood the need for courage to stand for equality and to change the world for the better. The power of human relationships built through cultural connections can never be underestimated. I am lucky to be a part of the U.S.-India relationship because to me it is not just rhetoric. I see, feel and live it every day. We continue to build bridges through anti-gender-based violence and anti-trafficking campaigns, powerful mediums of storytelling, higher education partnerships, green commitments, entrepreneurship and economic prosperity initiatives, exchange programs, and much more.
I have the courage to bring a trafficking survivor to the forefront of policy decisions; I have the hope that first-generation learners will value the power of education; and I have the dream that youth will always be a force for change.
I continue to build bridges of friendship, whether it is through student leaders from Texas Christian University or Howard University, or tribal girls from Jharkhand or women football players from Meghalaya. I continue to invest in relationships and furthering the circle of empowerment.
Sohini Das is a Public Engagement Specialist at U.S. Consulate General Kolkata.