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Family ties inspire FLAS Fellow to study Punjabi

November 27, 2014

A summer study-abroad program to India transformed graduate student Krysta Walia’s understanding of Indian society and even gave her some insight into her own ethnic background. Walia’s father is Punjabi, but she never learned the language since she did not live with him growing up in her hometown of Sedro-Woolley, Wash. “My experience in India was very transformative,” she said.

Walia, who is pursuing a master’s in social work at the University of Washington, took part in a program to Chandigarh, India, through the South Asia Center in the Jackson School. She spent the whole summer learning Punjabi. She had a chance to use the language this year during her social work practicum, while assisting a Punjabi family.


A man paints on Krysta Walia's forehead at the Hindu Mata Lal Devi Temple in Amritsar. The temple is a smaller version of the more famous Vaishno Devi Temple. Photo courtesy Krysta Walia.

A man paints on Krysta Walia’s forehead at the Hindu Mata Lal Devi Temple in Amritsar. The temple is a smaller version of the more famous Vaishno Devi Temple. Photo courtesy Krysta Walia.

Her experience was funded through a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship. The fellowships, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and distributed through the Jackson School, are open to undergraduate, graduate and professional students at the UW who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Punjabi was the not the first foreign language for Walia. As an undergraduate at UW, she majored in Spanish and psychology, and spent a quarter studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. But when she saw Punjabi on the list of languages she could apply to learn, she saw an opportunity to learn more about her father’s native language and customs. “I just had a really amazing time,” Walia said. “The experience helped me want to be able to understand a culture that I am not very connected to.”

Walia said that when she first arrived in Chandigarh, India, she was surprised by many things. Her first impression was of the heat. “When I first got there, it was so hot,” Walia said. “Like 120 degrees.”

It was not the first time Walia had been to India, but this experience created indelible memories and gave her two-and-a-half months to discover Indian society. “India is very much a collective-community based culture,” Walia said. “People do not live by themselves. They live with family.”

Walia said her notions of being a traveler in India changed on her third day in the country when she became sick. Her teacher suggested finding help from her neighbors, something she would not have done in the United States. Many of them came to check on her and Walia said it was a refreshing experience for her to see how kind and generous everyone was, even though they barely knew her. “I was so comforted by them,” she said.
Walia was moved by her neighbors’ meticulous care and said one of her teachers came to take care of her 14 hours a day, although the teacher had a 3-month-old baby at home. Another teacher invited Walia to recover at her own home, even though her house had just two rooms with seven people living there — a normal living situation in India. Walia slept on the teacher’s bed with her and her daughter. The room Walia stayed in was the only one equipped with an air conditioner in the house.

Another story Walia shared is the relationship between men and women in India. “I feel like there is, in many ways, a segregation between men and women,” Walia said. She said women usually walk together and rarely walk alone. Safety is part of the reason, she said.

Walia was especially impressed by the well-planned city structure of Chandigarh. The many parks and gardens fill in the early mornings as residents come out early to avoid the heat for exercise, socializing, yoga and to play poker.

Krysta Walia, center, attending an event in India with friends. Photo courtesy Krysta Walia.

Krysta Walia, center, attending an event in India with friends. Photo courtesy Krysta Walia.

Walia recalled being invited to have chai with a family she did not know. Many family members came to welcome their guest, which made her enjoy the way of working for life, instead of living to work, as she said is the way in the fast-paced United States. Even this small experience left an unforgettable impression of the hospitality of local residents.

She said she tells all her friends and other social work students about the FLAS Fellowship and encourages all students to consider applying.

Robyn Davis, fellowships coordinator at the Jackson School, wrote that the purpose of the FLAS Fellowship “is to enable U.S. citizens in various public and professional fields to operate successfully in other languages and with people of other regions of the world.” She quoted Kenneth Mildenberger, chief of language development at the U.S. Department of Education, who wrote in 1959 that, “A shrinking world has brought the United States into closer contact with other nations than it has ever been before. Closer contact demands of us the understanding of other peoples and their cultures on a vastly increased scale.”

More information about FLAS Fellowships, and the languages offered for 2015-16, is available on the Jackson School website. The deadline to apply is Jan. 30, 2015.

By Senhao Liu
Kristina Bowman contributed to this report.