Notes from a friendlier classroom

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College away from home has been many things. It’s been independence like I’d never imagined before. It’s felt like a three-year sleepover with friends I’ve cared for deeply from the beginning. But most of all, it’s been an education — and not in the traditional, academic sense. While I’ve taken classes I’ve enjoyed with professors I admire, my biggest lessons have come from the people I’ve met. And as I step into senior year, I’ve found that a great many of these lessons have come from the same person, the same friend.

Freshman year Anoushka was hopeful and curious. Her imagined version of Northern California was less cloudy than it actually is, the sunshine warmer and the breeze friendlier. She put up a confident front, as though she was used to facing so much change at once, and her excitement was through the roof.

Sophomore year Anoushka itched for something different. The thrill of the entirely new experience that was college in a country across the world from home had simmered down, and a new thrill was needed. She was still mostly delighted but had begun to get somewhat jaded. So she did what any bored and still somewhat motivated college student would do — she joined a new student organization.

On a pleasantly warm night a few weeks into fall semester sophomore year, I was introduced to a completely new group of friends. It was as awkward as any first encounter with people you’ve never met before, but it was also the night that pivotal friend in question walked into my life.

This friend and I are similar in a lot of ways. We got along instantly because we both have strong opinions about the Indian government. We are both unafraid to articulate our views on issues we cared about. We both consider ourselves very reflective but aren’t sure how to act on our reflections, to change qualities so inherent in ourselves. 

I learned my first big lesson not too long after our first interaction — that kindness takes you a long way, as simplistic as that may sound. I tend not to forget the feeling of hurt or defeat, but my friend helped me understand the importance of staying grounded even when you feel like the world is wholly against you, because it almost never is. There’s always a way out of the storm in your head. 

My second lesson was that expressing my informed opinions counted as much as confessing my ignorance. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” and it also saves you a lot of potential embarrassment that can come with spewing ambiguity. I admit that, as a freshman, I made lengthy arguments on topics I didn’t know much about, simply because the non-Indian person listening wouldn’t know any better. Once I had a well-informed friend who thoroughly understood India (where we are both from), they could constantly hold me accountable for my opinions.

My third big lesson came from an incident I think about frequently. We were having an early dinner with some friends and, predictably, also having a conversation about India. I was rambling on about the various socioeconomic statuses across states in India when my friend gently stopped me and reminded me to learn who my audience was before continuing. I read the room and realized that, despite our friends’ intelligence, their general view of India was distorted by stereotypes and Western media, and was thus unfavorable. Happy that I better understood their biases, my friend took over the conversation, and we had an enormously fulfilling discussion that evening as we presented a more nuanced version of India as we knew it.

I step into senior year significantly older and sufficiently wiser than I was as a freshman, and I owe a chunk of this experience of growth and scholarship to the people I’ve met. Most of all, I walk into my final year at a university that has given me so much with the knowledge that sometimes, lessons aren’t in textbooks or free solutions to problem sets on Chegg. Sometimes, you’ll find a lesson in the exchange of curiosity set to the tunes of Simon and Garfunkel in the background of a drive through Northern California, from contemplative chats over plates of Eggs Kejriwal, from ruminations about philosophy and spirituality via video calls. Lessons come from the people you let yourself learn from. 

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected]