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ISLE Program

Alumni Profile: Sarah Calhoun, ISLE '99

Story posted April 11, 2012


Sarah Calhoun, ISLE ‘99, Carleton College ‘01 (Religion), UW-Madison ‘06 (Languages and Cultures of Asia) and ‘11 (Library Science) 

Currently I’m the Assistant Curator of the South Asia Collection at Yale University Library. I am in charge of collecting materials, including books, journals, and assorted videos and maps, which are published in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. When I’m not in the library, I independently teach ballroom dance classes. As cross-training, I also take modern dance lessons.


I actually decided to participate in ISLE before I knew what ISLE really was. At the very beginning of my freshman year at Carleton, I went to a slide show put on by our Off-Campus Studies department. One of the photos was of a woman on the ISLE program with a huge smile on her face, standing in a brilliant green Sri Lankan jungle next to some relaxed monks in glaringly orange robes. I was struck with how alive everything looked. At the time, though, I was planning to become a French major so immediately wrote off my Sri Lanka fantasy as just that -- a fantasy. Sophomore year, due to a rather low draw number, I accidentally (fortuitously?) registered for Roger Jackson’s “Religions of South Asia” class, and after about 5 minutes had completely reworked my life plan, and decided to major in Religion and travel to Sri Lanka. I have not regretted that decision for a single moment.

The foods I fell in love with:

Amazingly, before going to Sri Lanka, I had never even eaten Indian food. However, I soon discovered that I quite love curry. Of all the foods that I enjoyed in Sri Lanka, I miss the indiappa and parippu the most. Unfortunately my wooden indiappa maker cracked down the middle and I had to throw it away. However, I did find a south Indian restaurant in New Haven that serves indiappa. It’s not quite the same as my Amma used to make...but close-ish, at least!

Outside of the classroom:

I thoroughly enjoyed both our Kandyan dance and drumming classes. I still have my costume, but have yet to find another occasion to wear it. Perhaps I’ll wear it for my next ballroom dance competition!


The people I cherished:

I ended up living with two host families: one in Kandy, and one in Lankatilake during my Independent Study. Both of them taught me invaluable lessons. My Lankatilake family was all the more precious since none of them knew English, and the boundaries of the “family” was rather loose--it was really an entire village that I lived with. I was actually out there for Thanksgiving. Since there were no calendars, and really no electricity to speak of, I had rather forgotten what day it was. My host family somehow knew, and made me a special fish curry. That afternoon, I took a quick jaunt across the rice paddy to visit with another ISLE student who was doing her work in the neighboring village. It was nice to be able to share the holiday with both a fellow American and my new Sri Lankan family.


What I miss the most:

One of the first things I noticed when I got back to the US is how all the food is hermetically sealed in plastic. I miss being able to walk outside and pick fruit from the trees -- especially the small bananas! I never thought I would say this about a banana, but they were sweet and juicy. There was a pervasive sweet and spicy smell of incense that seemed to be everywhere on the island. Plus, and I know this is a little trite, but the people were incredibly welcoming, especially after they realized that we weren’t just another group of tourists. I had a great time practicing my Sinhala with the trishaw drivers!


How the ISLE experience has translated beyond college:

Every day at work in the library, I benefit from my time in Sri Lanka with ISLE. Sometimes this has to do with purchasing Pali texts from the Pali Text Society (which I visited in Kandy), or answering questions about tea production in the British colonies (having visited a tea plantation in the central highlands of the island). Being immersed in the scents, smells and tastes of Sri Lankan daily life has broadened my understanding of the world and my place in it.


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"Being immersed in the scents, smells and tastes of Sri Lankan daily life has broadened my understanding of the world and my place in it."