Running in Circles
I was sitting at dinner with my family. My dad was prodding my Dadi (paternal grandmother) with some funny questions about the appearance of the chia pudding that had been placed in front of us. Our meal was mostly over, but dinner conversation had only just started to develop.
“Mummy, what does it look like?” my dad laughed. Everyone was in stitches. My Dadi held back giggles with pursed lips and then continued to finish the odd-looking, mushy dessert.
With that, the conversation turned towards me. I had just finished one month at my first job out of college, and I was getting ready for a big presentation in front of all the CXOs, including my boss who was flying in from Mumbai. Both my parents had advised that the first couple months of a job were all about gaining respect, and so I decided that giving senior leadership a clear idea of what I was up to would be the smartest way to go.
“What are you going to present on?” My mother asked. She was so delighted to see me take on some truly professional responsibilities.
“I was thinking of starting with my understanding of the company and then working my way into my projects and who I’ve worked with. Do you want to see what I put together so far?”
Everyone eagerly nodded in response.
I picked up my phone to open my Google Drive app and then saw the notification before me. It was an email, from the Fulbright Program.
I applied to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Thailand back in October of 2017. The application process had started in May, when I went to the scholarships office at Carnegie Mellon, convinced that I had perhaps finally found my calling.
“It all makes sense to me now,” I had said to my advisor, “I want to be a teacher, and I want to help students around the world.”
After years of struggling to find my calling in the world, the prospect of a Fulbright seemed intuitive and unreal all at the same time. I had gone from wanting to be an artist, to a lawyer, to a doctor, to a PhD, to a CEO, to finally, an educator.
“Then I guess we better get started.” My advisor helped me set deadlines for each essay that I put together to work around my chaotic summer schedule. By August, I was through two drafts and was thoroughly unsatisfied with my progress.
With every draft I turned in, I heard back comments ranging from “give me a concrete example” to “show me why this is so important to you.”
She was right, of course, which was the entirety of what was so frustrating. The best and worst thing you can ask an uncertain individual is “why does this matter to you?” It’s a question that we ask ourselves everyday. After a while the self-doubt begins to consume you, and manifest itself your work and conversations.
“Apeksha,” a friend of mine finally said, “you’ve already poured three months into this, and I know you want it more than anything. Why not just try to push through? What’s the worst that could happen?”
He had a valid point. I had spent months sitting on the floor of his room brainstorming my essays and rewriting them over and over again. I spent another few weeks after my campus interview on the sofas of other friends reading my essays out loud and tightening up the edges of my application.
It the support and fierce caring of friends like these that helped me recenter and remember why I wanted to apply in the first place. By the time the October deadline swung around, I once again felt determined to fight for what I cared about.
On October 6, 2017 I submitted my application and got a confirmation that it had been received.
On January 27, 2018, I was informed that I was a semifinalist for the Fulbright program.
On March 28, 2018, I found out that I had been selected as an alternate. It was a weird feeling.
What was most “weird” about this final decision was an added layer of uncertainty. I was, at that point, prepared to hear whether I had been selected or not. I knew the third option existed, but never thought of it as a possibility. It was unlike me to rely on absolutes, but it was also the only source of certainty that I could have hoped for at that point.
I graduated from Carnegie Mellon in May with college and university honors, and some of my best friends by my side. The uncertainty subsided for most of that weekend. Friends and family flew in to support me, gowns and dresses filled my wardrobe, and the number of goodbyes that I had to say grew more and more daunting as the weekend progressed.
Naturally, I was asked many times during that weekend, “what’s next?” and had gotten a little tired of explaining the entirety of the Fulbright situation. My response gradually evolved to become “I’m looking around, and there’s a company I’m interviewing with when I get home.” I left it at that, and part of my mind decided that it was finally time to leave the lingering uncertainty of my Fulbright ETA behind. I firmly decided to look forward, and reinvest my determination in something that else worthwhile.
With that attitude, I found NiYO — a startup that was willing to let me learn, grow, and start a few passion projects on the side.
By the time I had finished a month at NiYO, I had worked on developing an official style guide, gotten involved in reforming the interview process, and made some great friends. It was weird to finally have a sense of stability, both in where I was and what I was doing.
Looping back to where this narrative originated, that stability didn’t last long. The followup email from Fulbright was surreal and, most of all, confusing.
Imagine spending all of your mental energy moving on from something that you wanted, and finally being content — and then getting what you wanted all along. I couldn’t decide if the universe was rewarding me or taunting me.
“So what’s it going to be, Apeksha? Stability, or your dreams?”
This dream, was all I had been thinking about for a year. This stability had given me purpose.
My father took me on a walk after dinner. We spent a lot of time sighing and laughing about how quickly I had gone from gasping to shrieking to crying, and some time commenting on how annoying it was to walk our rambunctious Beagle pup.
The most difficult part of this whole decision was the reason I moved back home. We lost my grandfather in April 2018, and I wanted to be home for my parents and my grandmother. It had meant so much to her to get to spend time with me every day, especially since I had been away for four years of college. My brother was also leaving the house, and I had come home as a promise for — well — stability. Leaving home suddenly felt like breaking a promise.
“I’m going to miss you, Apex, but we’ll figure this out.” My dad said. I could sense the bittersweetness that had consumed him. I tried to explain myself, but wound up shaking at the thought of giving up on the stability that I had craved for so long.
“Papa, I’ve spent so much of my life having no idea what I want to do. Now I’m doing something, and it feels meaningful, but I’m not sure what’s right.”
We talked through it, and looped back to the reasons I had applied in the first place. I wanted to pursue education and immerse myself in another culture. I wanted to work with kids and help them pave paths towards whatever their dreams may be. It was never about my dreams, it was about theirs, and taking a U-turn now didn’t make sense. There were plenty of ETA alternates for the program to choose from. It was pretty much just me and my family that would be affected by this decision.
When we got back home, I took my seat at the table and sighed. It was just me and Dadi.
“I’m confused,” I said to my her. My head was spinning and my heart was thumping from overwhelming emotion. “Dadi, I don’t know if I should leave home so soon. I just got here, and my job is finally making some sense to me. You know?”
She patted my hand and smiled at me. It was quiet for a few minutes. The ceiling fan spun above our heads and the dogs barked a little in the background. She suddenly cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter.
“You’re going,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
I sat up and looked at her with doubt. I expected a hint of a frown, or a tinge of pain in her voice, but there was none. She was happy.
“Are you sure, Dadi?”
“Dadu would have been proud.” She assured me. “He traveled for things like these too, remember?”
My final decision was to go to Thailand — I think that had always been the plan. Dropping everything was certainly heart-wrenching, and made for a few very awkward days at work, but in the end it all seemed to work out for the best.
I’m really proud of what I was able to bring to NiYO during my short tenure, and I feel so blessed to have been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by the Fulbright program. I will say that things are still uncertain, but I do know where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing for at least the next year. That’s more than I could have said back in May at graduation, and it’s more than I could have asked for back in October when I submitted my application.
The road ahead is vast and meandering, but after a month of mental preparation, I think I’m finally ready to take it on.
To my family, thank you for your support. I will miss you terribly, but think of you often, so expect a good number of phone-calls every week.
To everyone at NiYO, thank you for being so understanding and supportive, even though you barely had a chance to get to know me. I truly enjoyed my time working with everyone, and have learned more than I could have imagined. I’ll miss you all too.
To my friends, thank you for never letting me give up. This literally would not have happened if you didn’t push me to believe in myself.
To Nakhon Si Thammarat, I’m coming very soon, and I can’t wait to call you home for the next year.
This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations