Episode 56 │ Light Festival Dreams & Social Impact (LYON)
Updated: Sep 22
"Once I was there it was like, 'Alright. This is actually really easy, really great, and I'm gonna keep [traveling] as much as possible.'" (Nivi, Episode 56)
This week's guest is Nivi Achanta, yet another lovely person whose acquaintance I made through a collaboration thread in the Women of Color Podcasters Facebook group at the top of this year. (I'm going to switch it up for the next episode, but isn't it fascinating how so many women who've studied abroad have also come up with such interesting podcast concepts of their own? I find that fascinating!) Nivi runs Soapbox Project, a media platform that helps people take action on social/political/environmental issues they care about by "eliminating friction between information and action". In connection with Soapbox Project, Nivi also has a podcast called Get Schooled, which examines American education through various perspectives. Her interest in wanting to help people become more informed and more civically engaged was stoked by her time studying in Lyon, France as an undergraduate student. During our initial interaction, she mentioned that she'd lived with a host family with two young kids and that "It was wild!", so of course I needed details!
Nivi is from the Bay Area, and she studied French for all four years of high school. She had a knack for the language and thoroughly enjoyed learning it, but the experience was slightly marred by the fact that she and her high school French teacher didn't get along. When Nivi started undergrad at University of California, Davis (UC Davis), she was determined to make all that she'd gone through to gain her French proficiency worth it, and for her that meant going to France. Through the UCEAP (study abroad programs that are open to all UC students throughout California), her options were either Paris, Bordeaux, or Lyon.
A friend who'd just come back from studying abroad advised Nivi against going to Paris if her main goal was to deepen her knowledge of French language and culture. (From my own experience studying in France, I can say that the notion that Paris is somehow not representative of France, or not the "real" France, is something that I've also heard from a few French people. It's not my place to speak on how valid that notion is or not, but it's certainly something to think about.) Plus, the cost of living in Paris was also a deterrent. Lyon, on the other hand, would be much less expensive, and it had an annual Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) that Nivi had been interested in since she first heard about it in high school. She would be there during the month of December when the festival was taking place anyway, so that became the selling factor for her. In the summer of 2015 Nivi arrived in Lyon to spend the fall semester there, staying from July to December. She was a junior in college.
Nivi was placed with a single mom who had two young daughters and a boyfriend who was around from time to time, and this host family turned out to be the perfect match. They were very accommodating to Nivi's dietary needs as a vegetarian (they were trying to eat less meat anyway), and the 8 and 10-year-old girls took quickly to her. Nivi has a brother but no sisters, and she loves kids in general, so living in this family was a delightful opportunity to feel what it's like to have little sisters. She and her host family made so many memories together. They went to the Alps to ski and chow down on raclette (cheese melted onto potatoes, meat, and pickles, it's delicious!). But even the smaller moments remain memorable for Nivi. A simple trip to return a library book became a bonding experience when one of her host sisters asked to come along. Nivi is Indian, and her host family was really excited about this because one of the daughters was highly interested in Indian culture. One day Nivi got henna from a local store and did henna designs for her host sister and her little friends, and they thought that was just the coolest thing! In addition to the obvious goal of making her feel like she was living in France as opposed to being a tourist, living with her host family made Nivi feel welcomed, appreciated, and cared for.
Outside of spending time with her host family and exploring Lyon by herself or with friends, Nivi also took classes at two local universities: Sciences Po Lyon (which specializes in political studies) and Université Lumière Lyon 2 (which specializes in the arts, humanities, and social sciences). Between the two she took courses on financial and monetary crises, international management, literature, and French grammar/linguistics. As an economics and statistics major, Nivi found the case studies she did in her international management course to be incredibly interesting. But it also proved to be quite challenging, because the group presentations she had to do in that class really stretched her French language skills. While she'd been comfortable speaking French to her classmates in the U.S., in France she felt herself being quieter and more reserved in class. It took some time for Nivi to be willing to make mistakes when communicating with her classmates, and making an effort to befriend them helped her push through insecurities she had about not being understood or not being "academically fluent".
The more she got to know Lyon as a city, the more Nivi came to love it. As the third most populous city in France, she found Lyon to be large and modern but also quite livable. And although certain aspects were inconvenient—such as the metro not running as often as one might expect in a big city, or the banks being closed seemingly all the time—Nivi appreciated the balance that Lyon struck between being bustling and vibrant, but also laid-back and relaxed. The older parts of the city (Vieux Lyon) and the Roman ruins that remain there also added to its charm. Sadly, however, Nivi never got to go to the Festival of Lights like she'd hoped. After the November 13th attacks in Paris, the Festival of Lights that was scheduled for the following month was cancelled due to security concerns. Nivi was in the right place, but it wasn't the right time for her to see those lights. All the more reason for her to return to Lyon, which she definitely wants to do at some point.
Just give a crap
Besides trips to India with her family, this was Nivi's first time feeling like she was really "traveling", and so she took advantage of her stay in Lyon by visiting as many other places as possible. Outside of France (including Beaujolais, Paris, and Strasbourg), Nivi also went on solo and group trips to Spain, Portugal, Germany, Prague, Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco, Amsterdam, and Italy. Once she got started doing it, she found travel to be a lot easier than she'd previously thought, and since that time she hasn't stopped.
Today Nivi is a tech consultant in the Bay Area, and she often takes her friend's advice (the same friend who advised her against studying in Paris) when it comes to choosing trips: rather than having her heart set on a destination, she picks a budget and a date, and lets the available flight deals decide where she goes. Through this strategy she's been to New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Guatemala, and time will tell where she goes next. As an entrepreneur who thankfully has a team to help her now, she continues to helm Soapbox Project and its newsletter ("Changeletter"), as well as Get Schooled Podcast and another podcast that's in the works for autumn 2020. She does all of this in an effort to "make it really easy for people to just give a crap" and follow through on the issues going on around them. Nivi can be found on Twitter (@niviachanta), Instagram (@niviachanta), and LinkedIn (Nivi Achanta). She also encourages people to visit soapboxproject.org.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Light Festival Dreams & Social Impact (LYON)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!