"What I loved seeing was how similar we all are at the end of the day... Don't go in with preconceived notions, because you can do as much research as you want, but you cannot understand the context of where you're going until you're already there." (Varsha, Episode 15)
Thanks to being in a couple of French classes together and having mutual friends at the time, I've been fortunate to know Varsha Koduvayur since high school. She was a year ahead and though we didn't become super close, she's always been incredibly kind and open to me. Plus, she ended up giving me a lot of helpful advice when I was starting in the same department as her at Michigan State University. Varsha initially became interested in working in Middle Eastern affairs after paying attention to acts of terrorism that became major world news in the 2000s. As someone who emigrated with her family from India at eight years old, she was especially affected by the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008. She wanted to help counter extremism and crises of various forms in the Middle East/Northern Africa, and she soon realized that learning Arabic is key to working in this field. So in addition to international relations, Varsha double-majored in Arabic.
At the time, MSU's Arabic department was hosting an Arabic Language Flagship program, which is a federally-funded grant for critical languages that universities have to apply to host. Upon being accepted into the program at MSU, Varsha didn't have to worry about fitting study abroad into her academic plans because the program organized it for her. After taking Arabic classes in the States for two years, she and her fellows spent a summer in Meknes, Morocco in 2013. Following that was another year of classroom study stateside, and then a full year ("capstone year") in Meknes again from 2014-2015, this time not only studying Arabic but also taking classes at a local university and doing an internship.
Indian "soft power"
Except for going to India to visit family, for most of her life traveling to other countries was too complicated due to her status as an immigrant (she finally obtained American citizenship in 2018), so Varsha's initial visit to Morocco was her first time spending a significant amount of time outside of the U.S. or India. She did have some qualms, since she knew that South Asian and other darker-skinned peoples are often relegated to being cheap labor in the Middle East, facing undue disrespect and mistreatment. But Varsha was pleasantly shocked that most people she met in Morocco were excited to meet and talk to her because they were big fans of Bollywood. The effect of this Indian "soft power" enabled her to feel a pride and appreciation for her home country that she hadn't felt so comfortable indulging in before.
Though the overseas component of the flagship program was supposed to take place in Alexandria, Egypt and got switched to Meknes due to post-Arab Spring safety concerns, it ended up being the perfect place for Varsha. She believes that studying in Morocco was even more advantageous to developing her Arabic proficiency because Moroccan Arabic is one of the difficult dialects to learn. Plus, her host mom during her one-year stay became a true mother figure to her, and they still communicate regularly to this day. Being in Morocco and traveling to other countries since then have helped her look outside of some of the more petty concerns of her day-to-day life, putting the rest of the world in greater and more realistic perspective.
After graduating and with the assistance of professors from James Madison College, Varsha applied and became the first MSU student since 2000 (and the second MSU student ever) to be selected as a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This fellowship kick-started the actualization of her dream to work in government in Washington, D.C., and she worked there as a research assistant focusing on Middle Eastern policy for two years. Since then she's bounced between advising businesses and working in think tanks, but through it all she's maintained her passion for the Arabic language and the political/economic specificities of Arab countries. She's still in D.C. and is currently a research analyst on Gulf affairs. Varsha can be found on Twitter (@varshakoduvayur), and her cat can be found on Instagram (@nigelfurragemcp).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Out of My Rut (MOROCCO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!