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NIDIA 23: Vegetarianism at Texas Woman’s: Best Leadership Lesson

When: Sometime back 🙂

Where: Denton, Texas

Being a vegetarian in Denton, Texas is not a hard job. However, when I first came to TWU in 2012, being a vegetarian while eating in the on-campus dining hall was hard. Not because there were no options. It was because veggie burgers were grilled on the same grill as hamburgers, and other vegetarian options included steamed or raw vegetables. Raised in a home where we were taught never ever to complain about the quality of food that we were blessed with for each meal, I wasn’t particularly disappointed. But then it begins to hurt 🙂 Having to eat steamed vegetables (I am a fan of both Popeye and Spinach so stop smiling.Its just that steamed veggies can begin to kill your spirits after a point). Then started my efforts to find places that made good vegetarian food on order in Denton (Will share a list sometime).

Then 2014 happens to us at TXWomans. I swear my life changed

For anyone who knows me, cooking vegetarian meals, bringing the reference of food into every discussion about high-quality human life, and talking non-stop about the pride I have for being a good cook are no new topics. So in the second half of 2014 when a new change made its way to our campus in Denton, I knew I had to hang on for a little bit longer before calling quits to my disappointment in other quarters of campus life.

Soon there was an option for us students to write to the University’s Chancellor. And the me that you know *evil grinning*, dusted off my key board and wrote to the Chancellor’s website about multiple things. This was primarily because, at the same time I was also getting trained in the nuances of educational leadership. And here it was. Changes in leadership, new evaluation and communication systems in place. I was the most excited person on the campus I guess. Late last month, I went into my writing logs and noticed that I had written to the University’s Chancellor (through her website) on about four topics.

Three of those issues are FIXED

While I can’t elaborate on two of them, I can tell you what one was.

Last month when we had a fair on campus, I walked to TWU’s Dining Services table and started praising them for providing more and more vegan options and for upgrading so many of their services. The Food Services Director calmly walks over with his hands folded and says with a smile,

You see that tall tower over there? Someone in one of those top floors, its all them! They care! Thank them.

One of the early topics I studied in my educational leadership classes was communication of educational leaders and how to hear everyone’s voices out to become an authentic educational leader. You see Learn by Doing  as a commonly used phrase on campus at TWU. Here I have learnt by watching how it is done.

How leadership roles can be class acts!

How bringing in change is hard but not impossible!

From where I come, feeding someone a hearty meal, not expecting anything back in return, wishing that they do well in their lives is life mantra that is practiced and preached as much as possible.

Since the early times when I realised that someone was reading my suggestions, I have actively encouraged every ‘complaining’ student on campus I came across to write their concerns/suggestions to the Chancellor’s website. Quite a few of them didn’t know of it and would say later, “Wow! it works! I tried..”

Last month, a friend of mine was being awarded for her research work and she was kind enough to invite me to the luncheon. I was sitting at our table when the Chancellor walked in and I greeted her. As obvious it is that it was a huge event and she had to quickly respond and moved onto greet the dignitaries at the event. A few moments later I hear a familiar voice tapping me on shoulder and saying something like, “Hi Sri, I had to go say hello to someone….”

I turn back to see the Chancellor. I am immediately trying to get up from my chair when she puts her hands on my shoulders and forces me back to my seat and says, “No, No, don’t get up. How was your trip to home? I saw the beautiful photo you posted this morning, it made me so happy!”

While I am responding to her plainly, inside my heart was screaming.

“Are you kidding me! You remember I went home and came back in one piece? Then you remember both me and my professor and you feel happy that we are happy in that picture? You know my name and you know I was travelling to go home…my thoughts were racing endlessly”

As funny as it may sound, that conversation just blew my brains. Not that I didn’t know from before how authentic she is, but because it happened to me.

When kindness is showered on you generously,

When people care in real,

When someone as important as her remembers you and inquires about you and your family,

It leaves an overwhelmingly positive impression on your mind

Collage of three images. Left portrait of Sri Chennapragada and Dr. Carine Feyten. Right portrain of Dr. Feyten's address at the awards luncheon. Right hand bottom corner image is of a vegan meal from TWU's Dining Services

Meet Dr. Carine Feyten, President and Chancellor of Texas Woman’s University.

There are some that teach you in school but then there are others that lead you.

And I am an extremely Proud Pioneer to be lead by such an exemplary educational leader who believes in bringing a breath of fresh air to the campus climate here at TWU. And she does it with a smile on her face always.

Today, at TWU, someone like me with restricted food needs,

  • Can eat 3 different types of entrees
  • Endless options for fresh healthy salads
  • At least two yoghurts and 4 options of fresh fruit
  • 2 Desserts
  • 2 options of fruits/herb induced waters
  • Locally sourced milk
  • Along with veggie burgers being grilled in ovens all by themselves without any mix up with meat

And it is because Dr. Feyten heard the needs of many students like me who needed healthier food options on campus and she worked hard to make it happen for us. How will this help her directly? May be will keep a foodie like me happy who will always be beaming her teeth out just like how happy I look in this photo.

Dr. Feyten, I love you. Thank you for everything you have been doing for us all. And most importantly because you brought good food on campus *smiling with all my teeth showing*

Note: Any of you (I know who all it will be) commenting on my oiled hair look here is going to adi vaangify from me 🙂 I am trying to handle a terrible situation with my hair and my mom’s organic home remedies keep it oily somedays. And that good day was a bad hair day. While I cringe every time I see the oily hair, Dr. Feyten’s smile fills my heart with joy every time I see it. This proximity to educational leaders and this positivity is ‘new’ for me and I am sure most of you all know why I love this school so much. It just feels like I paid a price in advance for all this happiness.

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NIDIA 22: Tears, Therapy and Truth

Over the years, I have faced a lot of backlash for my thoughts and ideas that take me forward in life. From the day I could see how surgeons can revive a dying patient on an operating table to the day I saw a child with severe spastic cerebral palsy take ten steps during gait training without a break: one thing became clear to me. Individuals with disabilities and challenges that concern their everyday health have always been redefining how we relatively look at success and failure. Across all domains. They have forever now been challenging societal stereotypes about succeeding in a task or failing to succeed in a task. History is the witness to who were observing, listening or cheering.
 
Watching beautiful stories, countless of them from the sidelines, sometimes being a minute part of these efforts, it is a job satisfaction that can never be described in words.
 
My last physical therapy case as a physiotherapist was a young stroke victim (38 years old) with right side hemiplegia. He was originally from Rayalaseema. He was also undergoing other treatments during the same time. I particularly state this here because I want many of my non-rehabilitation profession friends and family to know a fact.
Recovering from an illness, rehabilitation after accidents, re-training to handle a sudden disability: all these processes are complex and need so much help. It is never just one service provider.
One of the very common things you will see happen in countries like India is, rehabilitation services that families strive to provide for their loved ones often times include a spiritual component. And he was a believer in the help his parents were bringing to him from a spiritual perspective. And I think that is why working with him has left an indelible impression of my mind. How he was motivated to heal and was willing to stay involved. Often times it is so much dependent on the individual.
 
In about 10 days I think:
  • He progressed from not being able to hold the pen to being able to hold the pen.
  • From not remembering me to remembering every morning that I was his PT and that my name started with either P or B (even though he couldn’t yet write them down).
  • From needing full support to take a few independent steps to being able to stand up from a chair independently.
  • From tearing up every time I helped him hold a spoon to laughing out loud every time he dropped it down and I had to collect the glass beads back.
For someone like me who was trying very hard to heal from a terrible time in that college, working with him was the best thing to have happened to me then. I will never say he inspired me. I hate to apply that term to his situation or any other rehabilitation scenarios. His effort and the pain he battled everyday to make it through each session, they are indescribable. Nothing is inspiring when you see a person struggling every breath to take a step or to lift a small wooden block. For people who are really involved in their work as rehabilitation specialists, those are what I call the gut punch moments. The real moments when you are constantly reminded to not do a lousy job (because you had an annoying drive to work and for reasons like that) because someone’s ability to eat independently or self-care without dependence in future is solely relying on the chance that your care and training will be helpful to them.
 
Today I went through one of those evenings where you sit in open cold and you cry your heart out! You cry because that is the best thing you can do for yourself and that is only thing in your control. 15 minutes into the crying, face in my hands, palms wet with tears, I see his face when we last time said bye byes. I remember so well. He held my hands in both his hands and kept patting them while talking. He said to me, “You don’t know how much these few days will always mean for me in my life. You have the ability to be patient with people like me. You should continue to do the good work that you have learnt after all these years in college. Your problems will vanish someday. So choosing to leave the profession because of what people did to you because of politics is a wrong decision. And anytime you want to give up, remember my face and tell yourself that he will not appreciate it”
 
Why I wrote this today:
Social media was thrust upon our lives with no advance notice. It has now become a big part of our lives. For someone like me, I very carefully choose what I post on my social media (primarily because I don’t want to pain people with the challenges I have to face like everyone else). There have been several days like this in my #GradLife so far. When I have felt completely alone as the only Indian women ever to be here doing what I have done so far. So don’t ever assume that what I am trying to learn here has been easy so far. It is not as rosy as it looks on the social media. In extreme situations when possibilities for success look bleak, I remember his therapy days and ask myself.
Is it harder than the therapy days he persisted through for progress?
The obvious answer I hear my mind give me is NO.
 
The amount of kicking and screaming I have done to life every time I faced a challenge will blow everyone’s minds. Over the years the way I have been defining success and failure in my life have changed. The seeds for those thoughts though, were sowed during those therapy days when I worked with that young man from Rayalaseema.
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My Life: Religion in Reality

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Two days back, I was standing in the Portland Art Museum staring at a beautiful Quran which had illustrations made of gold and lapis lazuli. The beauty of the illustration caught my attention as I was walking away from a Native American Fashion exhibit. In a few seconds my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had with a best friend in college (I think it was in 2009). As the holy month of Ramadan begins, I want to share a part of that conversation here. Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, my best friend then told me something that helped her tide past tough times in her life. I do not know how accurate my understanding about this topic is. May be someone who is an expert on these topics can correct me if I am saying something wrong here. But why is it important for me to share this?

It was one of those rare occasions when someone from a different belief system helped me retain faith in God while not talking in the same language of faith I grew up around.

We were sitting in our college’s parking lot in the back of my dad’s car (Strangely, I have a photograph of both of us from that day which another friend clicked on my phone!!). By then I had cried for about 20 minutes when my friend said to me,
“Arre sun, tereko mein ek baath bolthi Padmini. Mereko nai maloom ki tereko yeh sab mein yakeen hai ki nai. Lekin mereko bolne ka mann karra, so bolri. Humaare mazhab mein ek baath sikaathe humko. Quran mein bhi likha hai. Jisne bhi apni zubaan se kabhi bhi ek bhi galat baath na kahi ho, woh zubaan se nikli dua hamesha Allah tak paunchthi hai. Aur ek aisa bhi hai ki ek bhi insaan nahi hoga jisne kabhi apni zubaan se galath baathein na ki ho. Lekin jo bhi galtiyaan hum karthein hai, woh sab hamaarein hi hai. Isliye, jab kisee aur keliye tu dua karegi, woh dua Allah manzoor karega kyun ki, doosre insaan ke hisaab mein tho tere zubaan ki galtiyaan maaf hai.”
[Listen, I will tell you one thing Padmini. I don’t know if you believe in all these things I am telling you. But I feel like telling you. So here it is. We are taught something in our religion. It is written in the Holy Quran also. A mouth(zubaan) that has never uttered a sinful word, a prayer spoken from that mouth always reaches Allah. And there is also this saying that there won’t be a single human who has not sinned ever by speaking bad words. However, a sinful word spoken from one’s mouth is their own and a prayer from that person for another human will always be a clean prayer. So praying for someone else will be the best way to make an honest prayer that the Allah will bless.]
I don’t know how well I have written her words in English. But these words have been a guide for me since then. Since that day, I always found solace in praying for others more than myself (That doesn’t mean I am not kicking screaming and blowing my nose away on hurtful things. I do the whole drama also :). Well, I do pray for myself to ask for all the materialistic things that I want and to occasionally give Him my thanks for gifting me a wonderful life. Jokes apart, that conversation helped me come over a huge set back in 2009 and since then, I have always bounced back from so many situations that would have definetely broken my spirit if it was not for all the spiritual help I had around me. And the beauty of the life I experienced so far is that when I went through a time of questioning the belief system I grew up around, my best friends who were Muslim, Catholic and Sikhs helped me find my way back to believe in a power that was beyond the understanding of my small brain.
When I stared at the beautiful lapis lazuli and gold illustrated Quran pages that day, her words rang in my ears. The words that she said to me, how I constantly use them in my life to tide past tough times made my eyes well up. She was a great friend. She was always there for others despite having a tough life herself . I learnt to cook Palak curry from her (see there comes my food reference!), learnt a great deal about Islam from her(She taught me to wear a hijab which I still use today in the hot Texas sun. It is amazing how airy it is and how you can hide your face completely! :)), realized the value of having a cursive handwriting from her (she used to say, kaiku kharaab karri tera handwriting aisa waisa likkhe? howli hai tu!!), and learnt from her that staying strong in the face of adversity was a hidden untapped talent that women are naturally gifted with. We also often spoke comparing the good things and the not so good things we experienced for practicing our own religions (If I publish all that here, I will be removed from all the countries I ever lived in hahaha). We talked a great deal about the foods we cooked. Our discussions were so animated that, one night when we were both posted for a night duty, I went to sleep listening to her describing how they cooked chicken biryani and trust me, to this day, I can narrate to you all the steps that are followed in cooking chicken for biryani 🙂 It is hilarious when I look back at all those memories. I even did a fashion photo shoot for her in a burqa. I can never publish the photographs unless she would ask me to. I will wait for that day.
I don’t know where she is today. She just disappeared from all contact points after college. May be she wanted no part of that life we all struggled to make it through. This Ramadaan, seeing that Quran brought back all these memories to me. Ismat, where ever you are, I pray and wish all the best for your life. I never asked her if I could share her photo publicly. But today I want to. If I receive an objection or a note from her or her family, I will remove the image from here. But for now, I want the world to see the image of one of the best humans I knew growing up in my city, Hyderabad. She reminded me to keep faith in my Hindu gods and she was a staunch Muslim.
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NIDIA 20: Distant Dreams

He complimented me about living in a nice part of the metroplex and said I made a good choice to go to school in Denton. 

SB: “I came to the US eleven years ago. Went to school here and graduated from high school. Are you from India miss?”

I uttered a how did you recognise me to be from India while laughing my heart out [It is not hard for people. I wear a bottu always]

He smiled and asked me “Don’t we all from outside the US look a lot same like people from one country miss?” He continued talking. “I was raised as one of the many children for my parents in Liberia miss. So, what do you go to school for? Nursing? Lots of Indians are doctors and nurses. Do you know that hospital on Independence, Presbyterian something? They have a lot of doctors from India there miss”

I am in Adapted Sports…[pausing a second to say] like Paralympic sports..Do you know about it?

SB: “Oh yeah! you guys do that sports thing with peoples who have disabilities right? That is such a blessed work. So nice so nice miss!”

I paused a bit before I continued talking because I didn’t know his name and I am so used to conversing with people by using their names where ever possible. “So, have you seen any adapted games in live?” 

SB: “No, but we know. They are everywhere these days. You see ads and all and then you see so many friends sharing these videos on Facebook always. It is amazing that people who don’t have hands and legs can do so much!”

Does Super Shuttle treat you well?

SB: “Oh yeah! I work 5 day/week. They are very fair and nice people at work.

That is good! Its good to know they treat you well! So you help your family back home? You send them money?

SB: “Yeah, I send $100 and that is about 8500 money back home. Helps a lot to send even $100…So… You get scholarships? A lot of Indians I pick up every week. All of them in colleges. Every Indian takes college seriously. Always working hard in college. No fooling around. So many rich Indians in Plano and Frisco. So nice to know hard work pays someday.”

[By now I was smiling and imagining the multiple factors that contribute to the ‘high’ number of Indians in Plano and Frisco. And coming to many Indians in colleges, I can’t but wonder how many even know where they are headed.]

I break my thoughts and say, “Yeah, studying beyond high school is important and for some people it works. They have help. Turning back looking at me with a smile in his eyes, he nodded affirmative. 

SB: “Yeah, my brothers and sisters are old enough to come and work here now. I am processing the papers and they should come here soon. I want to save enough for myself also because I want to go to college too. Someday.. Now if they come and can earn too, we can all go to school. So, do you get a scholarship miss?”

I am on a student loan for tuition and an on campus job pays my bills. 

SB: “Oh, that is good! Very good!”

You can sometimes qualify for some university programs that will help you pay for college but that will put you out of work because you should go to school full time then. 

SB: “Yeah, that is nice but I can’t do that now. But once my brothers and sisters come here, I will definitely try to apply for such programs. Thank you for telling me. I never thought of such options.”

Do you know that some of my most favourite songs are by a Jamaican band called Boney M?

[I cannot believe to how many people of African heritage that I have introduced Boney M. It is like I am born many years after they stopped singing but I am still stuck in their peak years of music]

I played the song on Youtube for him on loud volume and he was all tearing up listening to that song. I quickly scribbled the song’s name for him on a piece of paper as we pulled into the airport. 

SB: “In my country, there are so many languages. Don’t know what language this is but the music reminds me of home..my country.. I haven’t gone home on 11 years. Next year I want to go home.. [He broke down and kept wiping his eyes with his collar]

So you are finally going to meet your family? 

SB: “My parents are long gone. When we were kids. I just miss my country and my home. I will go next year if I am lucky”

I got down the shuttle, gave him a ten dollar bill and told him, “this is not a lot but I want you to continue and believe that your siblings will come here. You will all be family again. I want you to go to college some day and feel proud of what ever you want to pursue as a career. I want you to help more Liberians study and do well.”

For many of us, we get to eat a meal we crave for, buy what ever we desire and watch a movie we want to. Our family ( or parents) are a call away. Or even sometimes, hardly a plane ride away. But unfortunately how often I see that these exact blessings are so invisible to us. We don’t realise how irreplaceable these people are and how invaluable their presence in our life is. We are lost in our own perceptions and pains leading everyone around us into a vicious cycle. I wonder how would the same perceptions and pains take shape if one is made to face the decision of their life with life and death on either sides of one single choice one has to make: Like leaving one’s country for almost forever to find a safe job to work in and send money home.

I was on my way to a vacation last Thanksgiving and this conversation happened. I got on the flight with a lump in my throat and cried out (while writing this in my journal) till I could almost forget the look I saw in Sangray Bangalee’s eyes. It is a curse sometimes when you can be sensitive to other person’s suffering. Everyday when I pray, I wonder if his siblings are here and if they are all one happy family living together. Sangray’s case is not alone. We cannot solve all the world’s problems. But we can at least regard what blessings we have. We can share our blessings with others. That is all that we can do as mere humans. Otherwise, we will, as a human race continue to grow in numbers but be of the worst possible quality.

 

 

 

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NIDIA 19 – My pen has been lost by me!!!

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When: 2nd September 2015

Where: On Reliance Global Call 🙂

Several years ago, my father introduced us to a cousin of his. When my father respects someone with his whole heart, it is difficult for us to miss feeling the same warmth about that person. It is probably the way my father introduces these people into our lives. My father never missed a single opportunity to talk about this cousin and about how great a human being he was. Every now and then I met my dad’s cousin at social gatherings and it was always casual conversations and funny things that elders say to kids in large families :). I still don’t know if it is a good habit but I like to observe people when they are conversing with others. I saw this man over the years in many different places talking to many different people. Nothing about him was ever artificial. Every word he spoke, every blessing he shared, they all felt like they came straight from his heart. There are these few people you meet, who smile with their eyes. He and his wife are one of those few people I know whose kindness can fill a room and make your heart beam every single time you meet them.

Fast forward to 2015, one day when we finally got to ‘chat’, Facebook gave me the chance to ask for his number . He was quite surprised when I called him as soon as he sent me his number. He picks up the phone right after two rings, and has the same warmest greeting that he always had for me when I would meet him in person. For people who know me well, when I am happy, I am talkative. Like read talkative in bold, UPPERCASE and underlined in red 🙂 We talked and talked and talked. I think we spoke for over an hour [ If I wrote the whole conversation here, it will fill a book :)]. So many random things in education we talked about and none of it needed elaboration. Words just flowed and I could just understand them as is. To be sharing a conversation with a great teacher like him and enjoying it was like a dream come true for me. The joy of sharing a conversation like that with the person who has been my inspiration to pursue a profession in teaching, indescribable. Every minute of that one hour, inside my heart I was lamenting why I never got to work or learn under the guidance of teachers like him when I was in India. Half way through the conversation while I was filling him in on my work, he has this childish excitement in his voice and says,

“Padmini! I want to tell you about two incidents that will make complete sense to you.”

And obviously my response was, ” Cheppandi peddanannagaru!”

If I type them out in his own words, I might do some justice to the beauty of that conversation I enjoyed.

RRB: Oka roju, naa deggaraki, oka pillavaadu vachaadu. Vacchi, budhiga chethulu kattukoni (by now he is smiling while narrating this), Maastaaru pennu poyindhi… annadu.

Myself: Smiling and almost getting where this was going. I almost started laughing here. Was too excited to have understood where this was going [You can ask him if you want]

RRB: Nenu anna, yera, malli cheppu. Vaadu malli, Maastaaru, pennu poyindhi..ani inkaastha nemmadhiga, jaagratha cheppaadu.

By now I couldn’t stop laughing loudly. His subtle manner of narrating the entire incident was so powerful and hilarious. [ two of the many great qualities in great teachers: to capture the attention of their student fully and to engage them completely till they finished speaking :)]

RRB: Malli cheppara annanu. Appudu vaadu, Maastaaru, nenu pennu pogottukunna annadu. [ By this time, I was almost repeating the last line with him]

We both burst out laughing for over a minute there.

RRB: It was important to make him realize that he was responsible for losing an object that he could have kept safely. It is important to teach children to own responsibility for their actions early in life and I find that things like this are not taught in schools anymore. The focus is all on grades and exam scores these days.

Why this one hour’s conversation made me so happy?

I got to talk to a teacher in India who grew in his role to become an educational leader, guided thousands of students to success and yet, was one of the few most humble teachers I have grown up watching.

The honesty in his words and the simplicity in his teaching are two things that I will always aspire to acquire.

Almost five years after I survived the worst time in an educational setting, here I was, beaming and listening to the joy in a teacher’s voice for being a teacher. A person who has been through my age, worked hard to do the best for his students was talking with such pride and satisfaction.

20 years back when my dad introduced me to his cousin, I did not think that he will be the biggest inspiration behind my endless desire to teach and lead. Over the years, observing him, sharing small conversations with him and listening about him from my father have all influenced me to pursue teaching as a profession. Being almost the only Indian in this specialization here, doing something entirely new with no one to follow, I sometimes feel like I should give up [ to all my friends who are narrowing their eyes on me, don’t judge me like you don’t have one of those days yourself :)]. On one such days recently, I made this phone call and I swear it has changed my life.

Babbepalli Raja Rao garu, as he is fondly called in the family, peddanannagaru as I dearly address him, is the person who has renewed my hope to be a teacher right on the day when I was getting lost in my way. Hearing one of your own, your biggest inspiration,  tell you that you are doing the right thing and that you shouldn’t give up just yet is a blessing.

Peddanannagaru, thank you for that conversation. It will always remain etched in my memory as the most precious gift from my teacher. That conversation reminded me to own responsibility for myself and to enjoy my schooling to become a teacher one day. And yes, I still owe you a trip to your village and I can’t wait to come home next time. 🙂

Amma and Daddy, thank you for giving me this life to experience beautiful conversations like this.

Yours Sincerely,

Padmini 🙂

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