For June 2016’s “Courage,” Tenx9 newcomer Gayathri Narasimham told of coming to the US from India for school and having to borrow a little courage along the way.
I have enjoyed living in Nashville – this beautiful city is truly a home for me now, more even than my home in India. This story though, is about my first time in the US, before I arrived here, and my experiences interacting with Bruce H. who was and still is faculty, at Western Carolina University.
Several winters ago, I traveled from Chennai India, to Western North Carolina. The journey is memorable: it was my first flight anywhere; and an international flight at that. I think the excitement and newness of it all downplayed the fear I might have felt. Anyway I reached Chapel Hill, North Carolina, first, where my cousin lived and he was showing me around for a few days.
Again, the only things I remember about Chapel Hill in the company of my cousin and his many Indian friends are:
- Walking in Franklin Street.
- Drinking tea in an Afghan tea-shop which was so cozy that cold winter; and 3. Going to Barnes and Noble. I was acclimatized, and a little acculturated but still not prepared for the more homogeneous culture in Cullowhee, which was where I was going to school in Western Carolina University.
That year, they had had record snow in the mountains – so, when I arrived, everything was white, literally. I met a few international students but very few Asians; later I came to know that there were three Indians on campus including me, and that was it! A complete change from Chennai!
My new community was the graduate students in my department, and the faculty with whom I took classes; did research; assisted with their classes etc. As much as they were novel to me, I was novel to them too. Their conversations with me, would center around arranged marriages (really how do those work?), language, food and of course, religion.
I shared an office with Sally, a grad student in the Clinical Psychology program. She was this really brisk, bubbly person, no-nonsense type; it was fun to just talk with her, she had opinions about everything. Once when I was eating some tapioca pudding she said, outright, “Gayaaathri, how can you eat that? – its just like snot, so gross!” Whoa, shocking! But that’s Sally: you have to get used to her. I never ate tapioca pudding after that, in front of her.
I first met Bruce in the Research Methods class. Of course, Sally had warned me about him. The vibe among the grad students was that he was one of the most respected faculty, kind of more formal than the others; and extremely choosy in his grad students and research assistants. Well his opening lines in class were, “They are saying women are from Venus, but I’m really from Mars.” Which made us laugh, and I probably laughed the hardest, more when I found out he really was – from Mars, Pennsylvania. He was strict, yes, but always with a twinkle in his eyes!
The second semester, all of us who wanted to do anything further, like, um, get a PhD, had decided to do the GRE.
Bruce was teaching a class on General Psychology, which would be great preparation for the Psychology subject test. So we all decided to take it. In our first class meeting, Bruce said, “Folks, this is a review of many general psychology concepts; I have the syllabus designed so each of you will be responsible for covering 1-2 modules…so sign up for the modules you would like to teach in your order of preference.”
I think my first choice was cognitive psychology, but Brain & neurology was my second choice. The brain module was the first module in the syllabus, and I figured I’d have some examples from others to go by before it was my turn. Guess what? I got the Brain module – Bruce told me later no one else had even selected it.
This was daunting: I had never taught anything before; not in the US anyway; and then I had no idea of the scholarship I needed. No examples to fall back on, even if I made a faux pas, it’ll be like “Don’t do what Gayaathri did!” Nerve wracking – I talked to everybody I could – faculty, “Oh you’ll be fine,” and grad students, “Great! You’ll set the model for us! Yeah, you’ll be fine!” That was very helpful!!
Anyway, the day came and went; It was an 8am course; two of my best grad friends with whom I used to hang out, completely missed my class; nevertheless I continued. They came after the class ended, and reported to Bruce sheepishly: they had slept through their alarm! Bruce told them to apologize to me! I laughed, but breathed a sigh of relief, now it’ll be like, “Don’t do what Bryan and David did!”
So the semester was ending; we were talking about who to ask for letters of recommendation. Sally told me, “You know you cant ask Bruce – he never writes letters for anyone!”
Two faculty I asked for said yes, also said I should try asking Bruce for the third letter. So I mustered my courage, preparing myself mentally for a denial, and approached Bruce.
“Hi Bruce! I was wondering if you would write me a letter of recommendation.”
“Where are you applying?”
I mentioned a few places, Georgia, Carolina, Vanderbilt, West Virginia (one of my letter writers wanted me to go there), and then said, “But not Harvard.”
See, at this time, my uncle had gone to Harvard and was a legend in our family; my decision to not apply was fear I would be rejected; rather than face the shame from my family, I decided to just avoid. Bruce, said, “Of course not! Harvard is heavily theoretical – you would not like it there. But you should apply to Minnesota.”
Minnesota?! In my solid defense against Harvard, I had completely ignored the top universities for Child Development – the field in which I wanted to do my doctoral work. I blabbed, “But Minnesota? You mean the Institute? That’s like the top school!”
Bruce was calm, “Yes, so you should! What’s the worse that could happen? They can tell no, and that’s fine! Plus, I’m writing you a letter, so you should!”
I nodded meekly, mumbled thanks and walked away! Back in the office Sally the wise was in, and I blurted the whole to her. “Wow! So Bruce agreed to write you a letter? That’s a first!” Then, without missing a beat, “But you know, Gayathri, if he does not write a strong letter, nothing could be worse. Did you ask him if he’ll give you a strong letter?” I looked at her stupidly: there are such things as strong and weak letters? I was NOT going back to Bruce.
I prepared my applications, including to Minnesota; it was winter break and I was invited to Syracuse by said uncle. In the course of our conversations about future plans, he asked to see where I was applying. When I mentioned Minnesota, he burst out laughing. “You can’t stand the winter there; what’ll you do?!” And he looked at the brochure from Minnesota and I swear it said, “Minnesotans pursue an active lifestyle, including, hiking; biking, swimming and other sports in the warm climates of Florida!” More laughter. Then came the worst part: he asked to read my statement of purpose; Now, I have to tell you I was feeling good about the statement – I had written about 3000 words and all I needed to do was edit it down and I’ll be done. My uncle though, took a quick glance. He said, “ok you can keep the first sentence – the rest is drivel!” and took a red pen and scored through. My aunt who was watching this, gave a smirk. “Oh he does this with my writing all the time! Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” Those dreaded words again!
Anyway, I managed to write a satisfactory statement; and sent in my applications; ended up here in Nashville. I was, apparently, fine!
Did I tell you I never regretted coming to Nashville? But some months after I joined the program here, my dad died and my grad school mentor moved to a different university, there were lots of uncertainty and things were falling apart in every way. A kind person in the department took pity on me and showed me Bruce’s letter – she must have had good reasons to pick that from my file. I don’t remember all or even most of it, but the first sentences said, “I have written exactly two letters of recommendation before this one, and both for students who held a lot of promise and ended up as faculty in top universities. This is the third letter I’m writing….”
And this from Bruce, a graduate of the Institute for Child Development in the University of Minnesota; at the time he wrote that letter he had been faculty for about two decades. Legendary for never writing letters! And he had known me for less than a year!
That day, dear all, Bruce just allowed me to borrow his courage!