Vanessa Champagne '13: A Little Bit of Madurai in My Life

Vanessa Champagne was the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellow at Lady Doak College. This is her first year narrative.

I am grateful for this opportunity to be with the SCILET team at American College, the staff at the Chella Meenakshi Center for Research, and the amazing women and students of Lady Doak College. I am thankful for their candor, vision, and hardwork. For the remainder of the time I spend with them, here in Madurai, I hope to be able to give them half as much as they have given to me this past year.

I’ve honestly lost count how many times I’ve been told “come home sometime” by students, professors, and friends outside of Lady Doak College. So far, I have come to understand the statement in these ways: I am curious about you and want to know more of your story; I am a great cook and want to subject you to overwhelming portions of food that no one human being can possibly consume; I want to tell you more about the time I studied abroad, went on vacation, or about my relatives who live abroad.

After accepting these invitations, I am in for an evening of heartfelt hospitality and warm conversations shared over food guaranteed to tickle my taste buds. It’s through these invitations that I have been able to make genuine friends who care about my wellbeing, call to check on me, and occasionally offer me advice.

One invitation was to see a display of dolls during the Navathi Celebrations, an occasion where (among other things) guests eat well and leave with gifts of fruits, jasmine flower, bangles, sandal powder from their host. Only women are invited to this event. The young woman closest to coming-of-age are honored with a special gift.

During home visits, I feel confortable asking questions about the parts of Tamil culture I have not been able to wrap my mind around—be it the recipe for a gravy I haven’t been able to get right, tips on the best place to buy something, or advice about the appropriate way to interact with a person in a given situation.

Some of my recent inquiries were about titles of relatives in the Tamil family such as cousin-brother (cousin or friend), thaimama (uncle, mother’s youngest brother), periamma (uncle, monther’s older prother)/periappa(uncle, father’s older brother), and chithiamma (uncle, mother’s yourger brother) / chitappa (uncle, father’s yourger brother).

Explanations of the thaimama’s relationship to his older sister’s daughters were captivating. I’ve met a scholar in Madurai who is documenting the cultural intricacies and financial implications of this kinship. Some time ago, the thaimama was considered the most eligible bachelor to his older sister’s daughters. His importance now speaks of the responsibilities of the mother’s family toward her daughters. If the scholar is not mistaken, today the thaimama is significant to a girl’s three rites of passages: her ear piercing, coming of age, and wedding ceremonies. In some families, he may also be expected to pay for her education. In comparison, this goes beyond the expectations for even the godparents in some American families.

Representative or Fellow?

Distinctions between the Madurai that older Shansi representatives had lived in and the Madurai I reside in now, came up in discussions with Shansi representatives who I met during their visit to India. One such occasion was in September with Professor Zoe Sherinian and another with Professor Joe Elder this January.

How different this journey must have been for Professor Sherinian and even more for Professor Elder and his wife! In the 1950s, the people that Mr. and Mrs. Elder would have met on the many boat trips it took to reach Madurai must have really have set the tone of their journey.

I think of what it meant to live so far from family considering the time it must have taken to send correspondence alone. It helps me appreciate the comforts that Skype, Facebook, and email have contributed to my experience so far.

You see in my days we wrote letters home, Professor Elder once said, now you call it reports.

This report doesn’t have stories about being asked to give impromptu lectures on English literary classics, to coach sport teams, or to direct the college choir like some of the veteran representatives’ letters to Oberlin. Nonetheless here are some of what I have been up to this past year.

What have I been up to?

The faculty at Lady Doak College holds a special place in my heart. Two women from the History Department have taken it upon themselves to make sure that I adjust well to my new life in Madurai and to my position at the International Study Center (ISC) office.

To be brief, of the countless acts of hospitality I have received since joining Lady Doak College, I will only share about the gestures of the ISLP Faculty Coordinator, who is a professor in the History Department, and one of the Shansi Visiting Scholars at Oberlin during the winter that my cohort’s orientation took place, who is the Department Chair. Both women have been exceedingly kind towards me. One brings me home cooked foods, shares with me her favorite snacks, and teaches me to make Indian dishes during her free time. One invites me for home cooked meals on some Sundays and takes me on small errands when she has the time.

I remember well, that one of my first adventures in Madurai was a trip to an archeological excavation site that these professors invited me to. I joined one of the history classes as they dug in trenches carved out by employees of the Archeological Survey of India. We looked for pieces of broken burial urns and stone beads together as students practiced techniques they had been learning about in the classroom.

Pictured with students, archeologists, and staff of Archeological Survey of India. Photo taken by Sheela Precilla, LDC.

The Study Center for Indian Literature and Translation (SCILET) at American College opened its doors to me as a space to come to for recreational reading and to socialize. There, I met talented student writers. During their 2015 Creative Writing Workshop, I spent four days with SCILET professors, staff, guest facilitators, and students as they nurtured their writing skills.

This workshop was established by the late Dr. Paul Love. I did not have the chance to meet Dr. Love, but he has left a remarkable presence at American College.At the 2015 Creative Writing Workshop opening convocation.Pictured with a guest (middle) and acclaimed author, journalist, and philanthropist Jerry Pinto (left). Mr. Pinto led the SCILET Creative Writing Workshop at Kodaikanal International High School in August 2015. Photo Taken at American College by the college photographer.

At Dr. Paul Love’s Remembrance Ceremony. Pictured with American College students and Professor Joel Timothy (center). We performed a poem written by Dr. Paul Love entitled “Nothing like a Rocking Chair,” which was set to music composed by Joshiya Emmanuel (far right). Photo taken at American College.

The Chella Meenakshi Center for Research (CM Center) was where I completed my summer language intensive. My relationship with the center has grown since the completion of the ten weeks of Tamil lessons. Since then, I have been invited as a guest at two research related workshops that the center organized for college students around Madurai. The center sponsored part of the ISC Celebration of Dance program, where students from Oberlin College’s Dance Diaspora dance troupe conducted West African Dance workshops for Lady Doak College students as well as dance teachers and dance students around Madurai.

Pictured with student participants of the CM Center’s workshop on Field Study Methods Across Cultures and Academic Writing. Photo by CM Center Staff.

What is one thing I’d take back, if I had a do-over?

The International Study Center (ISC) at Lady Doak College is located in Shansi Hall, which you may already know houses the Shansi Fellow’s apartment as well as the ISC Office. I am tickled by the thought of walking seven steps to work every morning. Past fellows have probably already mentioned the positive and drawbacks of this situation.

Initially, I sought to embrace this as an opportunity to get to know the students and encourage friendship building early on. I had an open door policy. One of the two rooms was set-up as a sitting area, including a coffee table stocked with a ready supply of Indian sweets and chocolates. I also shared my kitchen with the LDC permanent international students. I imagined that eventually folks would start to wander into my apartment in addition to the office space and friendships would blossom.

I soon realized that sharing too much of my personal space was not a good idea. I acknowledged this shortcoming, reorganized my rooms and furniture back to the way the previous fellow left it, and called it a lesson learned.

What has been a few rewarding challenges so far?

LDC Permanent International Students are twenty-two in total: one Kenyan, two Rwandan, two Singaporean, and seventeen Nigerian students. In addition to the permanent international students, I also interact with short-term exchange students from the US, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. Interacting with these students is one of the most gratifying aspects of my time at LDC so far.

The Nigerian international students have a social structure where the eldest students work together to guide the younger ones. This is admirable but in many ways counterproductive to the roles of the ISC Faculty Coordinators and Administrative Assistant who should be their support system. The challenge remains of finding a way to encourage the students to use the resources available to them through the ISC office while acknowledging that it is alright that they relying on one another in some ways.

For now, we have resolved to organize monthly mixers where the students share some of the difficulties they encounter. Although we opened this space as a way to build trust between the coordinators and the students, we intend to continue to organize programs that will help facilitate interaction between the (short-term and long-term) international students and the ISC Student Club all together.

Study Abroad and Student Exchanges at the ISC are aspects of my position that I’ve also found challenging. I am impressed by how much administrative work it takes to make these opportunities possible.

In addition to our connections with International Christian University in Japan, Lingnan University in Hong Kong, Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, and the Concordia College in New York, the ISC Advisor and the Coordinator of International Exchanges are entertaining possibilities of new partnerships for undergraduate and postgraduate student exchanges.

The ISC is expanding in exciting ways!

What were the highlights of the past year?

Collaborations with the South Indian Term Abroad (SITA) program flourished. SITA incorporated an internship in their students’ curriculum. So in addition to the two ISC senior student interns, I worked with a SITA student from Bowdoin College. She is a writer and slam-poetry performer. We were lucky to have her on board at the newly launched ISC Writing Center, an idea that was inspired by prior Shansi fellow Stephanie Mora Hernandez. Students who participated in the workshops at the center were thankfully able to attend one day of the 2016 Chennai Storytelling Festival.

Event Programming is the fun part of my work. The students put a lot of effort into organizing and participating in majority of the events we put on.

Since the ISC student group was chartered as a student cub, we have been exploring what this changes in the ways students spend their time at the ISC. The ISC Student Club held its first cabinet elections in August. Two presidents and one secretary were elected for each batch, self-financed and aided. Two co-editors were also assigned to lead the newsletter committee.

We were proud of publishing our first issue of the ISC Newsletter in December and our second in April.

In the first months, I asked the students which past events they considered ISC traditions. We made a list and made sure to put on those events that stood out to everyone.

Below are snapshots of a few ISC events this past year:

Photos from the Cooking Competition (right) and the Rangoli Contest (left) at European Carnival ’15. Photo by ISC.

Photos from the Pumpkin Carving Workshop from Halloween. Photo by ISC.

Pictures of Apple Day Celebration. Photo by ISC.

On Thanksgiving Day, we revisited the controversial history of the tradition as it is celebrated in the United States and made connections to celebrations that encourage gratitude and community building as Thanksgiving grew to become for some Americans (top). Following this discussion, we shared a delicious potluck meal. Everyone brought food from their homes. I prepared American and Haitian styles of macaroni and cheese. At the end, we reflected on what we were thankful for thus far in life and meditated on these in writing (right).

Picture of Thanksgiving Celebration. Photos by ISC.

Pictured introducing Professor Ranganarhan Seshadrirajan of Madurai Kamuraj University. Photo by LDC photographer.

ISC hosted the 17th Madurai International Film Festival. Students spent one day learning about genres of film and documentary (top). Shorts and animations were shown from Guinea-Bissau, India, Russia, and Japan.

Photographed after the conversation. Picture by ISC.

In February, ISC Student Club members and SITA student gathered for an open discussion on “Journalism, Psychology, and Social Media” with Psychologist Dr. Janet Dix and Journalist & Publisher Dr. David Dix, a former Shansi Rep at American College.

An African Dance workshop series that began in the fall semester by focusing on Guinean and Gambian dances and Angolan Capoeira led up to the ISC Celebration of Dance in March. The Celebration of Dance was a two-week program on Tamil Folk and West African Dance that included dance and drum workshops, a panel discussion, and a lecture that brought together Oberlin College student members of Dance Diaspora, members of the LDC Center for Women Studies, local performers, dance teachers and students around Madurai.

LDC and Oberlin students at Parai (drum) workshop in Meenakshiuram. Photo by ISC.


The International Service Learning Program (ISLP) responsibilities came in full force last August and again this January. During my summer language intensive, I was asked to co-facilitate the ISLP tour of Reaching the Unreached (RTU), an NGO that provides resources for orphans and children effected by HIV near a nearby a Hill Station called Kodaikanal. I felt uncomfortable because after being in Madurai for one month I knew little about the ISLP program, Madurai, and Kodaikanal all together. Although I was overwhelmed by the task then, this gave me a boost of confidence for the following ISLP month. In addition to hosting Seoul Women University’s student participants of ISLP, we also hosted Pacific University’s student participants of a three-week cultural emersion program.

In January, joined a week late because I travelled to Delhi to document the passport renewal process of one of the Nigerian international students so as to include i in the handbook we are compiling for next year’s international student orientation.

Even more, we got through the program without one of the office’s most valuable organizers, the Administrative Assistant. In spite of her physical absence due to an extended medical leave, she was there every step of the way, on the telephone directing the student volunteers. These students demonstrated outstanding maturity and capacity for leadership during that time. The ISLP Coordinator was a constant presence at the ISC and made sure that we had the support that we needed. Without these women and students, January month’s activities wouldn’t have been possible.​

For the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal, we joined an ISC student’s family for pujas(prayers) and the ceremonial pongal making. We shouted Pongal-ah Pongal! as a container was spilled of its overflowing content of boiling rice and spices, symbolizing the abundance with which the family has been blessed and hope to continue to be blessed in the future (top).

A professor from the Tamil Department at LDC invited ISLP team and Pacific University team to her home village, Othaveedu, to take part in their celebration of the third day of Pongal, the Farmer’s Pongal (top). There, we all witnessed Jallikathu, a bull wrestling tradition. This sport is outlawed in India, but the professor’s family asked permission to put it on. No animals were harmed.

What’s next?

I am learning so much at the college and in living in Madurai that I cannot wait for what comes next. I am looking forward to seeing more of Tamil Nadu as well as other parts of south and central India. I travelled to the north-west to visit co-fellows Emmanuel Greenberg and Christian James in Himachal Pradesh, and I really enjoyed the short time I spent there. I have heard only great things about Kerala state, I would love to visit a city there before the start of the new semester.

Cheers to a splendid summer!