Home Away from Home

Home Away from Home

When I moved to West Lafayette in August 2015, I did not expect to discover my new Home. Although I was floored by the hospitality of the local people, I yearned for something connected to India. I saw numerous Indian students in Purdue campus, but in the College of Education, I did not meet many.

A casual walk one day revealed a “little India” here. Just across the road from my apartment was the Indian cultural center. With my heart pounding within my rib cage, I entered the building which looked more like a huge shed. There was a little Hindu temple attached to a very big hall with a stage on one side. Bharatiya Temple & Cultural Center of Greater Lafayette or BTCCGL is the organization that runs all operations in the cultural center.

There were several flyers pinned neatly on a soft board which revealed that there existed a vibrant Indian community in this city. Few words exchanged with the lonely couple sitting there, threw more light on the center’s activities. On weekends, besides religious activities, the center offered Yoga, Sanskrit, Bal Vihar and Bagwad Gita classes. This was like any town or city in India. Little did I expect this here. I paid a visit on a Saturday and was amazed at the number of people attending the classes, both parents and little kids dressed in colorful Indian attire. If I was shocked by their numbers which was, say around 50, it was nothing compared to a bigger tremor that was coming.

Yummy dishes from India here in WL

 

On Diwali, an important festival of India, the hall attached to the temple was full to capacity. I walked into the hall, being drawn by the aroma of Indian food and was taken aback by the sheer numbers of people. There were nearly 400 people at any time and people kept leaving and coming continuously. I asked a friend, (yes, I made some friends) whether all the people were connected to Purdue. She replied that several Indians worked in companies like Caterpillar and in the many research laboratories in West Lafayette and Indianapolis. Parents worked in Indianapolis and preferred to have their homes in WL because of the good schools and safe environment. They did not mind commuting to Indy every day. This is a lot to say about any place.

In WL, all the Indian festivals were celebrated with great pomp and show. I enjoyed dressing in Indian attire, which I do rarely when in campus, and eating mouth-watering food from every state of India. There was always a grand spread of 7-8 dishes and soon I started looking forward to any celebration. I came to know that every festival was celebrated by the Indian community with great fanfare. Moreover, all these activities were organized by BTCCGL volunteers. Men and women and even children participated eagerly in organizing events, dancing, singing, putting up plays, maintaining a small library and what not.

Come November, I bought tickets to go to the Celebration of India event organized by the Indian Women’s Association or IWA. The Faith West community center was full. Now, were there a 1000 people or 1500? I never even thought in my wildest dreams that a little city like West Lafayette located in the United States, would have these many Indians. There were Purdue professors, Purdue students, their families, engineers from companies, doctors and people from every profession.

As is normal back home, there were numerous dance performances and bands belting out music from Indian movies of various languages. Performers traveled all the way from India to entertain the population here. Again, there was food, food, food……. from samosas to biriyani, all my fav food was there. My excitement was evident when I related my experiences to my mother that night. “Are there so many Indian families,” she wondered.

The story of the Indian community in WL will not be complete without me talking about the IWA. The small but efficient group of ladies organized several fun activities like summer picnics, Cricket matches and Holi celebrations. But, IWA was about something more. They used their funds to award a scholarship to a woman researcher at Purdue whose research focuses on women centric issues. They also collect money to donate towards rehabilitation efforts taking place in regions where nature unleashed its fury. In December 2015, my hometown, Chennai, was ravaged by floods and IWA immediately started arranging for help. Locally their services have been valuable to the Lafayette Food Bank, Asha Purdue Chapter, YWCA, and Lafayette Urban Ministry. They do not shirk from expressing solidarity with issues affecting the Indian community in the U.S. I know for a fact that public demonstrations were avoided even in the big cities regarding such issues.

Every year IWA publishes a magazine called Sanskriti which carries articles about global tourist attractions, critical issues, current events and also short stories. Sanskriti gives voice to many aspiring writers who live in WL. This year they published a beautiful cook book named, “Dash of Desi.” All the credit goes to the women behind IWA.

I was learning so many things about the WL Indian community and was baffled at the myriad activities they were involved in. Any big city in the U.S. houses a huge Indian population, I know, but for a small city like West Lafayette, it was amazing. The festivities, friendship and fun were reminiscent of the harmony among the Indian community. I am sure I’ll have a ton of stories to share when I visit home next summer after three long years. I can go on and on about my findings about this city, but let me keep some for my next blog post.

By the way, did I mention the word HOME, in my previous paragraph? Isn’t this like home? When I wrote that sentence, I got my title to these ramblings, “Home Away from Home.”

Teach graphic

Building the future of Purdue: Life of a Teaching Assistant

Grad School may resonate with research and most likely research will be the main source of funding for most of Grad Students. However, it is often forgotten how many Grad Students are Teaching Assistants (TA) and we ourselves forget how important the TA position is. Of my 5+ years at Purdue I served the last 3 years as a TA for a undergraduate class teaching two introductory courses of engineering design to the incoming First-Year engineering students.

With around 240 First-Year students under the umbrella of my responsibility, I have the great task of primarily aid the faculty members in conveying the courses’ learning objectives. I see this with different lenses, I believe that my work is beyond entering grades and from times to times give a lecture or two, I see my job as mentoring the future generations that will someday (and not so many days later) be where I am. I teach concepts of engineering design, engineering innovation and some basic notions of computer coding, but more than that, I bring my experiences from the world of Aerospace Engineering particularly the rocket science to awaken the students into a world of possibilities with their careers and (secretly) recruit some to the school of aeronautics.

Perhaps the biggest realization of the TA job is that of all the students in the classroom setting I am the one that learns the most! There are countless occasions on which I shared some of the challenges that I face either in research or in classes that I take that seem to have no way out and a fantastic out-of-the-box solution came out from some of the ideas that my students came up with.

These lenses are given to me by Purdue University with their never-ending pursue of excellence in the teaching core. Not a day has past that I “TAed” (and yes, we use TA as a verb!) and felt that the job was a mere source of funding, I see my job as an opportunity to mentor the next great engineer and being greeted by a former student who thank me for inspiring them makes the whole teaching experience worthwhile.

At Rent Intermission Club

What do you do outside Lab?

What do you do outside Lab?

This is not how I normally look in the Lab
My Lab Face

That’s the most frequent question I got whenever I met new person once standard questions like name (Irma), occupation (Grad student), major (Food Science) answered. I think it’s a fair question since the stereotype of scientist promoted by the oh-so-famous-with-never-ending-season TV show is working in a Lab (which I do).

To answer that, let’s do some background first. I am a big Opera/Symphony fan that used to be a racer (this is a story for another day), so, I tried to find things to do in West Lafayette-Lafayette area related to my passions. Luckily, there is Purdue Convocations that sometimes host classical music and musicals. However, the tickets price for those shows are a little bit much when tallied, with student budget, I have to be creative.

This is our most Formal Shot, usually we're just being caught unaware
“Official” Group Photo before Ushering Duty (Photo Credit: Rodrigo A Rodriguez-Fuentes)

Lo and behold, I found CVN, a student organization of volunteer usher for Purdue Convocations show. I registered and started signing up for shows. There is point system, so the more frequent you signed up, the more chance you got selected for ushering. Perks of this student organization is seeing shows for free after ushering duty is done. That, plus free food (Pizza or Donuts) and coffee (or no coffee if the food is Pizza). Also, Volunteer can sign up for pre-show, usually consist of talks (sometimes recorded for WBAA radio) and Intermission Club. Intermission club is for honoring donor patrons of Purdue Convocations, light refreshments like non alcoholic beverages (for alcoholic beverages donor patrons have to pay)and finger foods (cheese cubes, vegetable dips) are provided. Volunteer usher can also have some of those afterwards.

CVN Instagram once show my smiley face
I’m featured in CVN Instagram Page! well, it’s MK and I, but still 😀

I remember my first show, it’s Calmus Ensemble. The ECHO-Klassik award winning group of They were singing Shakespeare inspired a capella. Needless to point out they are the best first experience for me. One Soprano, Two Tenors, Two Baritones. I am in heaven.

However, free show is not the best experience I gained from CVN. It’s meeting people with similar music taste and more. I met my tribe, people I can rely on for fun (Hey, let’s go to Chicago for Chicago Symphonic Orchestra College Night) and be there for me when I’m stressed out by academic burdens (the Lab, don’t forget the Lab).

Winning this plus Cabaret tickets
My Semester Bounty

This semester is special for me. I won the raffle for Chamber Tickets from Purdue Convocations, yes, all six shows on Classical music. It means I (plus one) get to go to those shows for free, no need to work for it. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic. When CVN other volunteer (a.k.a semiofficial photographer) asked me whether I will still be volunteering or not since I now get free tickets I said yes, for the shows I don’t have tickets for but mostly for fun and the people. Since that is one of the thing I do outside my Lab.

 

Runners

My Thoughts on Running (Or My Love-Hate Relationship with My Calves)

Running in all weather 😉

My “hate” for my calves. I think I have always been genetically predisposed to run. I have really muscular calves. (Thanks Pops!). In elementary school and high school, my calves were a source of great insecurity for me. Let me say this, high school boys can be cruel. I remember vividly how a bunch of 9th-grade boys would loiter by the stairs looking at girls’ legs and I overheard this particular group talking about my muscular calves. Now for an 8th- grader, this was particularly distressing. I put on a brave face and ignored it but I can never forget the fact that my calves were a topic of conversation.

Despite being a source of insecurity,  my legs (calves, included) helped me with my gymnastics. My coach would tell me I had “great legs”.  By great,  he meant that my legs could take me to the nationals. And they did and even won me a silver medal.Yet, for all the “nice things” my legs brought me, I was always insecure about them. I remember freshman year in college, the girls in Silliman University were required to wear — of all things — bloomers. I would run as fast as I can from my dorm to the field and back again so I can spend as little time in public wearing those despicable excuse for shorts. I think I left an impression on my classmates when I would remove my shorts underwater rather than before going into the water for our swimming classes. I was THAT insecure.For the longest time, I think I avoided wearing shorts, skirts or any piece of clothing that would bare my legs. But these days, I now wear a lot of running shorts. Because I rediscovered a love for running.

Running in the Philippines. I think I have always loved to run. In the University of San Carlos where I did my undergrad, I was almost always rushing from one place to the other. However, I was told it was “unladylike” to run. So I stopped. I now regret listening to that advice — because I would realize later on that once our bodies get used to inactivity, it will remain at rest. (Newton’s law, right? LOL). I would run here and there but never really made it a habit.

Running in Texas. This is now an absolutely horrific memory but in TAMU where I did my masters, in the first not-so-fun run I ever joined, I only bested 2 pregnant women and a woman with her baby in a stroller. If that’s not embarrassing, I do not know what is. Those women were running for 2. I wasn’t.

How running helped me overcome depression. In 2012, I hit a really low point in my life. I was depressed. I hit rock bottom. My self-esteem was zilch. I was overweight. I was ugly. Everything in my life was falling apart. I can hardly recognize myself in the mirror. And now, I wish to confess that I had thought of ending it all. But as I was too cowardly (or maybe brave), I sought help. I went to the doctor. I went to group therapy. I sought counselling. I eventually went home to the Philippines to heal myself. And I decided I needed to make changes

When I went back to Texas, I knew I needed to fix my health issues. I started with the small things. I decided to eat healthy. I started to avoid all meat and I started cooking all my meals. I would portion them and made sure I only ate within my caloric allowance. I went to the gym. I tried the treadmill.

My running journey. Running on the treadmill, I would get bored and would focus on the time or distance and when I get tired I just hit that STOP button and workout is over. So one day I decided I was going to run outdoors. Running outdoors forces you to run till a certain point then run back to where you started. Now, at this point, I was really horrifically unfit. I was slow. So I decided I was just going to do timed runs. I got a Couch to 5K app. My first run consisted of a 20-minute run/walk combination. I hated every second of it. I can barely breathe. But I finished it and that gave me a bit of confidence to do it again. So I did. Eventually, I was running 30 minutes a day, then 45 minutes. I got better at it and I would run a minimum of 3 miles on average every day during the work week. I would then run 6 miles on average on Saturdays and/or Sundays. I wasn’t fast or anything. I just kept at it.

Running in Flagstaff. I would eventually move to Flagstaff and I thought I can run as easily as I was able to in Texas. Wrong! At 7500 ft above sea level, I was back to square one. The first time I ran in Flagstaff, I once again felt like my heart was in my throat and that I can hardly breathe at all. I only ran 1 mile that day. Now this put me off from running for a while. I was severely discouraged.

Life then happened, but I was happy. I was happy with my job, with my coworkers, with my students. I felt appreciated and I regained my self-confidence. I was happy once again after a very long time. And winter hit. Now, I can run okay in Texas winters but Flagstaff is a different story. So I took a break.. a really long break.

Let me just say that when summer came, I took out my running shoes again.. and once again went back to square one. I started again. Eventually, in the Fall, I kept running because I had coworkers who were patient with me. They would easily chat while running while I struggled to keep up. Yet they were always patient with me.

I would then join Team Run Flagstaff’s Step Into Running Program. I met some wonderful people there. I felt comfortable running with people from different walks of life and different stages of fitness. I was very impressed and a little bit intimidated at the marathon runners. They were very inspiring. I put in the work and I was happy to have survived a 5k at 7500 ft above sea level. I didn’t care much for my time but I thought I finished strong.

Running in Flagstaff was easy logistically. I miss that about the city I lived in for two years. I can just walk out my apartment and explore some urban trails. I am sad I didn’t run more when I lived there.

Running in Indiana. When I moved to Indiana to attend Purdue University, I was very determined to keep running. My friends thought I was crazy when I would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to get a 3-mile or a 6-mile run. That was in the Fall. But Winter was another story. Winters in Indiana are something else. But of course after the winter comes the Spring. I started running again – back to square one, then to being comfortable at 3-miles, then 6-miles and eventually 10-miles. That was the longest I have ran.

I would eventually join Fleet Feet’s running program. Fleet Feet in West Lafayette is awesome. I met amazing people from different walks of life with different running goals. Since I am not fast at all, I ran with the BOP – or the Back-of-the-Pack. We may not be the fastest but we sure did have a lot of fun.

I sought to run a half marathon. And I did! My first half marathon was the Purdue Half 🙂

Running with Fleet Feet friends. My first half marathon. The Purdue Half.

I was super proud of myself after I finished. Training for it was a 12-week commitment and I made it! I would run another half marathon after the Purdue Half in the Spring. I did the Indy Mini. I was super proud of myself.

Indy Mini. My second half marathon!

Injury. I kept running in the summer because I had signed up for another race. But alas, I injured myself, had a couple of health issues and well, life got busy.These days I am trying again.

Why do I run? I run to exercise and feel healthy and strong. I run to enjoy my running music. I run so I can make full use of expensive running gear (On a grad student’s salary – running clothes and shoes are pricy!)

Light on my feet. Literally.

I run to exorcise all my demons. I run to find peace. I run to talk to friend. I run so I don’t have to talk. I run to think. I run to stop thinking. I run so I can forgive others. I run so I can forgive myself. I run to run away from all the stresses that plague me.  I run to fight with my enemies in my head (I sometimes imagine myself as Manny Pacquiao, the boxer).  I run when I have things weighing me down.  I run when I need to make a decision. I may not always get an answer but I always feel much better after a good run.

How do I run? I try to run in good form. I run till the only thing I can focus on is taking my next breath and putting one foot in front of the other. I wonder if my eyes sweat as well or I am actually crying. But I run till all my sadness, all my heartbreak, all my frustrations, all my desperations, all my anger go away. I run until I feel myself becoming whole again. I run like it is a form of meditation or prayer. I run despite my whole body rebelling until it feels right. I run in order to be happy. I run so I can live.

My “love” for my calves. These days, I am really proud of my calves. Because they are strong. Quite strong that even after the killer workout,  I hardly feel any soreness. Because I am vain. I get compliments on how muscular they are. But most of all because I have always had them and they are strong and they are mine and they take me places. Maybe it isn’t even too far-fetched to say that my calves saved my life.

And to celebrate them, here’s a photo of me running away from my insecurities and running towards my happiness.

Happy running! (Photo by Babelyn Cabalar)

Bye for now, gotta run! 😉