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Interest in South Asian studies increasing at UB

More students at UB are pursuing interests in the language, culture and religion of India and other countries in South Asia.

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published May 23, 2016

“If there is one thing students should know about South Asian studies, it is that there is a lot of funding for study of South Asian languages and relatively little competition for it.”
Walter Hakala, assistant professor
Department of English

UB students are enjoying the benefits of the university’s growing interest in study and educational exchange with India, ties that are paying big dividends for students looking for international education and research opportunities.

Two UB students have won international study awards to India, and another student is a finalist. The students’ achievements spotlight what has become an increasing number of students pursuing their interests in the language, culture and religion of India and other countries in South Asia.

“Study, service and fellowships to and from India have been plentiful this year,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships, whose office has fostered a significant increase in UB students winning national and international awards in recent years.

“There has been an increase in interest in the study of India and the languages of India. As a result, we have more students applying for, and being awarded, prestigious and valuable scholarships to India.”

The list of UB undergraduates winning international fellowships and scholarship awards to India alone is proof of the benefits of this UB-India academic connection, Colucci says.

  • Kayleigh Reed has won both the Boren Scholarship, a highly competitive international award stressing language, and the Critical Language Scholarship.
  • Sampurna Chakrabarti, a native of India, has won the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Chakrabarti has led efforts on campus to recruit people for service work for Teach for India.
  • Minahil Khan, a graduating senior and former UB Student Association president, is a finalist for the Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, which would provide financial support for a year of service in India.

Colucci says the growing number of students interested in the study of India, its culture and its languages is largely due to Walter N. Hakala, assistant professor in the Department of English and the Asian Studies Program.

“His Honors College seminars have inspired students to increase their proficiency in Hindi and Urdu, and to study about India and the people of India. As a result, we have students applying for these prestigious and valuable fellowships and scholarships, such as the Critical Language Scholarship and the Boren Scholarship,” Colucci says.

“Professor Hakala has changed the culture here at UB.”

Hakala’s approach combines affection for the culture and religion of South Asia with a clear-eyed pragmatism that encourages students by pointing out the advantages of this academic background.

“We are a small but very passionate community of students and faculty at UB who share a fascination with South Asia,” he says.

“If there is one thing students should know about South Asian studies, it is that there is a lot of funding for study of South Asian languages and relatively little competition for it.”

Students interested in traveling to India can get funding through the Critical Language Boren, Gilman and Fulbright programs, or from other sources within UB, according to Hakala. UB’s study abroad office and the Asian Studies Program both offer scholarships for traveling abroad.

“You won’t win scholarships unless you apply for them,” Hakala notes. “That’s why I require students in my upper-level electives to prepare statements of purpose for study abroad scholarships in the hope that they will then go on to submit them and get funded to actually travel abroad.

“Last year, only seven people across the United States applied for six Fulbright English teaching assistantships in Bangladesh. By way of contrast, 49 people applied for three ETA positions in Belgium and 146 for 12 positions in Greece. The trick is to start applying early in one’s undergraduate career and to continue applying throughout.”

Hakala stresses that students interested in South Asian studies should learn a South Asian language.

“Hindi and Urdu are by far the most popular languages,” he says. “But I love pointing out to students that according to the website Ethnologue, there are more people who consider Bengali to be their mother tongue than German or Russian.

“There are more Punjabi, Telegu, Marathi and Tamil speakers than there are people who consider French or Italian to be their mother tongue,” he continues, adding that UB again will offer elementary Hindi-Urdu, starting in the fall 2016 semester, after several years of not offering the languages.

Kayleigh Reed, winner of both the Boren and Critical Language scholarships, is a perfect example of Hakala’s approach. She mixes a strong appreciation of South Asian culture with a clear career goal of making a difference through her education. Students who start to learn South Asian languages become much more competitive for additional fellowships. She also is proof that starting small and building up a record of winning grants can lead to more substantial opportunities.

“I think it's important to recognize that, while India is certainly the largest and wealthiest country in South Asia, much attention should be directed at Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bhutan, as well,” says Reed, who will study Urdu in India for almost a year.

Before applying for either scholarship, however, she applied for and received funding to attend the StarTalk Urdu program at the University of Pennsylvania last summer.

“Each place has a distinctive and unique cultural output, topography and socioeconomic climate — attributes that the western world has largely ignored after the British left India in 1947,” she says. “One-fifth of the world’s population lives in these seven countries. But how many people do you know that study Hindi? Nepali? Marathi? Urdu? Bengali?

“The only reason I know people who study them is because I started studying one, myself. I think, however, that it is important for others to start learning these languages — for diplomacy, business prospects, environmental initiatives and NGO/aid initiatives.”

Winning the Boren Scholarship will provide her with the opportunity to become fluent in Urdu.

“With that skill, I can help others, in whatever capacity I can — whether that ends up being through governmental work, volunteering, interpreting or higher education,” says Reed, who up until now has never been outside the U.S. and Canada.

“Ultimately, I think my interests lie in serving the global community. My dream is to work for the Foreign Service, but those jobs are tough to get. Winning this scholarship, however, makes that dream more attainable.

“In short, this opened up several doors for me personally, sure,” she admits. “But more importantly, it opened up several avenues for me to help others. It starts with becoming fluent in Urdu and it could end with any number of careers that help people.

“Aside from that, I love learning about South Asian culture and I've connected with many of the students at Lafayette High School through discussions about Bollywood,” she says. “I’ve even used Bollywood to help kids understand their literature assignments.”

Sampurna Chakrabarti, winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, graduated from UB this month with a BS in biological sciences and a BA in psychology. Chakrabarti says she fell in love with neuroscience and writes a blog to make neuroscience accessible to a broader audience.

“My research will help understand arthritis and pain pathologies that affect millions of people worldwide,” she says. “I am also passionate about educational equality and hope to work with organizations around the world, especially in developing countries, to make quality education available to all.”

Chakrabarti is intent on finding other opportunities to “help forge new relationships, find new passion and increase global competency.” She and fellow UB students Antara Majumdar and Sushmita Gelda are working to improve communication between middle school students in Kolkata, India, and Buffalo. This program includes working on a virtual film club with students in Calcutta Rescue, a nonprofit organization for underprivileged children in Kolkata.

Hakala is especially proud of the work Chakrabarti, Gelda and Majumdar have done connecting Buffalo Public School 31 with a school in Calcutta. He gave the P.S. 31 students a lesson in Hindi, which they were able to use during their frequent Skype conversations with the India students.

Preparations for studying South Asian culture and language should begin well before college, Hakala says.

“The best thing about UB is there are some incredible mentors who are always willing to help you achieve your goals,” says Chakrabarti, who, besides Hakala, singles out Malcolm Slaughter, professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, for introducing her to the “fascinating world” of research and encouraging her in “every scientific pursuit.”