Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: Ponnila Sunderi Samuel '07

Story posted October 28, 2005

"Claiming An Education"

Bowdoin College's 2005 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 28, 2005, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by student speaker Ponnila Samuel '07.

As a biochemistry major, and what some students may affectionately call "a science geek," I am most comfortable basing my understanding of concepts and theories on facts, and I use that fundamental basis as a means by which I can take experimentation to a more advanced level. Simply put, I like to know the specifics of the situation in which I am placed; I need to understand where I am in the present and how I got here before trying to get to some designated end point in the future.

During my sophomore year of college, however, I took what I thought would be a small risk and enrolled in Gender and Women's Studies 101; I had heard from my peers that it was a fascinating introduction to the analysis of the roles men and women played in different social and cultural contexts. The first major assignment for the course was an interview paper, which focused on comparing the experiences of our generation to those of a person who grew up one or two generations earlier. I decided to interview my grandmother, Jessie Thangammal Charles, and to focus on the topic of education.

As perplexing as this may seem, the process of writing this paper was one of the most difficult I have encountered in my years at Bowdoin. Given my background in the sciences, I was trying to write the interview assignment the way I would any research paper in my biology and chemistry courses. But there was an extra component of this Gender and Women's Studies essay that had not appeared in any of my previous classes: The introduction of an element belonging to my personal life and the conversion of that piece into academic format.

Taking Gender and Women's Studies forced me to push myself out of my safe, "science zone," and actively engage in a field of research that was completely unlike what I had ever done before. In writing about my grandmother's experiences with education, I was required to come to an understanding of my own experiences with formal education in America as a South Asian woman; although, these were not bad experiences, they reflected a part of my character that even I had not confronted. Growing up in a small, Caucasian, and very French town in Southern Maine, I felt as though others were judging their perceptions of Indians based on my academic performance. From my youth, I had always taken to heart one of my Uncle's sayings that excellence in academics is "expected of us [Indians]". With the heightened pressure of this expectation, I was a student who always needed to keep proving her worth to others. The fact that I knew I was trying my hardest was not enough. It was important to me that others were aware of my intelligence and talents.

Coming to terms with these aspects of my life for this Gender and Women's Studies assignment was certainly an uncomfortable process; yet, at the same time, it was intellectually stimulating and allowed me to grow both personally and educationally. I am still conscious and proud of the fact that my academic performance speaks well of South Asians as a whole, but I now see education as more than just a way to represent my people. It has become my avenue to respect, authority, and power; it has become my key to finding and nurturing my own, unique voice as a growing woman and to use that voice to claim a place for myself in this fast paced society. This assignment enabled me to place my educational experiences into context and analyze how they shaped the person I am today. Juxtaposing them with my grandmother's formal and informal educational experiences in South Asia, I have become cognizant of the way in which different aspects of education work off of each other to create an information base for the learner, which can collectively be applied to any field in the work world. More importantly, however, this assignment forced me to listen to my grandmother's stories, to understand the hardships she faced as a young woman in South Asia, and to eventually realize how many contexts into which the term "education" can be placed.

Looking back at my conversations with my grandmother, I realize the complete contrast that our individual lives presented when juxtaposed against one another. An early marriage stipulated by societal expectations prevented my grandmother from completing her formal education. Yet, despite the restrictions placed on women by South Asian society, the fact remains that my grandmother worked within those limitations to further her growth and development. Each experience she underwent before and after marriage was utilized as a catalyst to enhance the dimensions of her character and spirit. Unlike most women who were required to stay with their mothers-in-law after marriage, my grandmother had the opportunity to see and experience many different places and cultures throughout India and Burma with her husband. She journeyed to Simla, the summer capital of the Burmese government, and to Agra to see the Taj Mahal; she spent fifteen years in Mumbai, where she learned to speak Hindi fluently. She even once showed me a picture of her sitting and speaking with Nargesse, a very well-known Hindi film star in the 1950s.

When she returned to her mother-in-law's home, it was the informal education that she had received in learning to work with people, to manage her affairs, and to command respect within those dealings that gave my grandmother a voice; all the academic education in the world could not have given her the authority she had when she returned home from her travels. She had the ability to develop her own thoughts and ideas and was respected when she shared them with others. This education taught her to live for herself and to use her voice to break free of the standards that had guided the way she lived her life until then. A vivacious woman, she made, and continues to make, a claim to that particular education "Life 101."

My grandmother and I grew up in different times, in different places, and in different cultures. The fact that these dissimilarities exist must be made known in order to truly understand the system of values that is nurtured in both societies. In acknowledging these circumstances, I see that my grandmother's experiences were just as valuable as my own. Both of us were able to take the education we were given, both formal and informal, and use it to develop our intellect and character. The Gender and Women's Studies interview assignment enabled me to expand upon the biology and chemistry knowledge I had received in the past and confront the process of incorporating into my work research on social issues including those that delved down to a personal level. Furthermore, I was able to explore the concept of education in my grandmother's life and, in doing so, I became aware of the experiences from which she drew her strength and resourcefulness. My grandmother claimed an education for herself, in spite of the confining standards of South Asian society. Taking example from my grandmother's life and from the perspectives of my own educational experiences, I am beginning to see the truth in not only "being here to receive an education...[but to] claim"*...the education I have received via academics, as well as the education I receive by just experiencing all that life has to offer.

This is truly the liberal arts education at its best. I now encourage you all to step outside your expertise and to challenge and give yourself a new perspective on life. Unlike my grandmother, and many others before us, we have the gift of academic, liberal education, and it is our responsibility to take advantage of what is offered at Bowdoin for our sake and use it along with life's education to take our potential to new heights. Thank you.

*Work cited:
Rich, Adrienne. "Claiming an Education." Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology. 3rd cd. Ed. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 19-21.

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