the wonderful world of veena.

27 September 2013

the 5 biggest decisions of my life.

It's no secret that I'm at a bit of a crossroads in my life right now. I recently finished graduate school, I turned 30 a few months ago, and I'm slowly trying to figure out where I want to be and what I want to be doing. While I sit at this juncture, I've been thinking a lot about how I got here, and I've realised that much of my life has hinged on 5 major decisions that have taken place over the course of my life.

1. Moving up from 1st to 2nd grade.
When I was in 1st grade, my teacher had trouble giving me enough work to keep me occupied. I would finish worksheets early and then sit in the back of the room and play while my classmates completed theirs. I'm not saying this to brag or to imply that I was necessarily smarter than the other students in my class: I was 6, after all; we were all on the same level. But for whatever reason, it happened, and my teacher suggested to my parents that I move up to 2nd grade so that I could be challenged more. My mother and I went to Little Rock so that I could meet with a child psychologist there to make sure I was emotionally ready for that, she said I was, and so my parents and I - as much as I could, being 6 - decided that I would move up a grade. After 6 weeks in 1st grade, I was suddenly a 2nd grader; from being Class of '01, I was a 2000 kid. I loved being a part of my new class, and I never once regretted my decision to switch grades, but it was definitely a catalyst for everything that has come after.

2. Leaving DeSoto to attend Baylor.
This was definitely one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. When my brother started at Emory, he had a tough time adjusting to the rigorous academics, and he suggested we think about my attending boarding school in Chattanooga to better prepare me for college. At the time, I was horrified. My first thought was that my parents wanted to get rid of me so they could have the house to themselves. Yes, I realise now that I was being melodramatic, but hey, I was 14, cut me some slack. Once I got over myself, my parents and brother and I started talking more seriously about my attending Baylor, and my father and I flew to Chattanooga to visit the campus and see the school. And that's what cemented it for me. The campus was beautiful, all the people I met were great, and by the time we left campus, I was sold. My admission letter came soon after, and come August 1998, off I went for what remains 2 of the greatest years of my life. I grew a lot as an individual, I made a number of friends from across the US and around the world, and I learned from amazing individuals both in and out of the classroom. Baylor opened up a whole new world for me and provided immense preparation for the rigorous academics that I would encounter at Rhodes. I loved my dorm and the friendships I made there, I loved the random Saturday adventures we would find for ourselves, and I loved the community I found at Baylor. It was a great place to be a part of, and part of my heart will always live in Chattanooga at the top of that hill.

3. Volunteering in India for 6 months.
When I first graduated from Rhodes, I had no idea what I wanted to do. While my friends were stressing about grad school applications and finding work, I was pretty successfully avoiding thinking about the future. Because my parents were moving to Memphis right after my graduation, I wasn't worried about needing to find immediate employment. I took a few months to help my mother unpack and sort out the house, and I eventually became a nanny for Carter Strickland, one of the happiest and easiest babies I've ever known [the fact that he is now NINE floors me. to me he'll always be tiny]. And while I enjoyed hanging out with Carter and teaching him new tricks, I was continually drawn to the idea of volunteering in India. It was something I'd toyed with previously, but with school commitments and summer jobs, it hadn't worked out. I started Googling various projects and organizations, and I eventually landed in the hands of Peace Child India. From there, my life has never been the same. I spent 6 months teaching English in 3 government schools around Bangalore, traveling around south India, and being welcomed with open arms into the wonderful Devaraj family. Those 6 months changed the trajectory of my life in countless ways, and every day I am thankful for some stray memory from that time.

4. Moving back to Bangalore indefinitely in 2007.
After my initial round in Bangalore, I returned to Memphis and began working at Barnes & Noble, eventually getting promoted into the role of Head Cashier. While I enjoyed the work that I was doing and most of the people I worked with, I couldn't stop thinking about my time in India. I wanted to go back. And finally one day Shonali said to me: "Veen, if you want to come back, then come back. Stop whining and feeling bad for yourself and do something about it." And it was exactly the kick in the ass I needed. I was wallowing in self-pity about not being in Bangalore, but I wasn't actively trying to get back. I was all talk. So I decided I should teach. I had found a TEFL course in Calcutta and signed up for it, thinking that I could find a job teaching at an international school in Bangalore once I finished the course. Before going to Calcutta, I went to Bangalore for a week to spend some time with Bern and the rest of the family, and she mentioned to me that Jagan and Maeve would soon be moving to the UK and Peace Child would need some help and was I interested. Was I interested?? Of course I was. It was what I had been wanting for nearly 18 months. We agreed to start on a trial basis with me being in charge of trying to recruit new volunteers, and as soon as I finished my TEFL certification in Calcutta, I was on a plane back to Bangalore. Little did I know what the next 4 years had in store for me. I went from sending outreach emails to eventually leading and organizing the project at the Boys' Home. I led 11 [that I can remember] groups on trips to Mysore, Hampi, Coorg, Mahaballipuram, and Kerala. I became a part of the Devaraj family in ways I could never have imagined. I grew into an adult. And I met wonderful people from all over the world. Those 4 years further solidified my desire to help others, they brought me some of the best friends I have, and they provided me with numerous wonderful memories that I will cherish forever. Deciding to leave was another one of the hardest things I've ever done, but I will forever be grateful for those years and for those people.

5. Leaving Bangalore for graduate school.
Around late 2009, I first heard of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. While Facebook stalking various people, I discovered that a friend from Rhodes had attended a mysterious grad school called the "Clinton School of Public Service". I had never heard of it, so I decided to check out the website, and I was impressed with what I saw. What especially drew me to the program was the emphasis on fieldwork and the requirement that all students complete an international project. Working abroad for so many years made me certain that everyone should have some international service experience at some point in their lives, regardless of their field. I wasn't ready yet for graduate school [or to leave Bangalore, if I'm honest], but I kept it in the back of my mind and would periodically check the website to see the updates and to see what cool new speakers had been a part of their speaker series. Finally, when I was in the States for a visit in fall 2010, I told my parents I was thinking of applying to grad school. I had found a school - in Little Rock, no less - that offered a "Master of Public Service", and I was interested [my father was thrilled at the thought of me in graduate school]. I bought a Kaplan GRE study guide, and I headed back to Bangalore. Over the next few months, I wrote personal essays and I solicited recommendations from long-lost professors and I studied for my first standardized test in over a decade. And while those preparations were difficult, I knew I was making the right decision. I knew I needed to further develop my skills and test myself in new ways. I knew it was the right time for me to go back to school. And I knew if I didn't leave Peace Child and Bangalore then, I never would. When I found out I was accepted, on a rainy Tuesday night in April [I remember it because my house flooded], I was overjoyed. It had been a long time since I had worked toward something like that, and having it pay off meant the world to me. While I know my decision to move back to the States for school put a lot of pressure on my personal life and eventually ended a relationship, I also know it was the right thing for me. Attending the Clinton School opened up a number of new opportunities for me, introduced me to wonderful people doing amazing work all around the globe, and brought me still more friends who continue to influence my life.

And now here I sit, on the verge of making yet another big decision. At present, I am looking primarily at jobs in the States. While a part of my heart will always be in India, at this juncture I think I need to explore more opportunities here. So much of my professional life has been spent abroad that I would like to get a glimpse of what working life is like in the States.

I know things will work out when they're meant to work out, and in the meantime I have been enjoying trips to see old friends and to celebrate weddings and babies and getting to do all those things I missed out on for all those years. It's nice getting to see people I've not seen in a long time and to take trips to new places and to try new things.

And one day, eventually, I'll find myself exactly where I'm supposed to be.

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