Students have crossed the country just to attend St. John’s. She crossed the world.
She is Dimple Kaul, AGI’20, and also an international student, one of that small but very welcome subset of the graduate student body. I wanted to interview her at first because of the uncommon matriculation of international students, but after meeting her, I wanted to know her life story as well. Here was this brave woman, jettisoning family, career, and home to travel over 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles to us Americans) and study the Great Books in a strange land.
I couldn’t help but ask, “how did this come to be?”
Dimple Kaul (DK): Divine intervention works in mysterious ways! Immediately before coming here, I had a corporate career for 15 years after earning a Bachelor’s in Engineering and a Master’s in Management. Growing up, though, I always wanted to be in the field of literature, education, academia; my family from my grandfather’s time has been involved in the field of education. I actually wanted to pursue a PhD in the same. However, being uprooted from my native place due to terrorism and the reversal in my parents’ fortune meant that it was far more important to have a stable career that offered financial independence. That is what made me pursue my BE and MBA. Then, two years ago I met with a near fatal accident that gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life and my future. That is when I decided to give in to my cherished dream and move in the direction towards where I have always wanted to be.
GIJohnnie (GIJ): What were your prior impressions of the US and of Americans?
DK: Many of my friends studied here; I had been exposed to American culture through books and movies; I had business partners and colleagues from the US. Going by that experience, I had a favourable impression, per se. I always took the Hollywood caricature of your schools and colleges (as dens of hedonism) with, not grains, but bushels of salt. I had received a very good opinion of the methods of teaching employed here, and St. John’s has since validated that belief multifold.
GIJ: Have you read any of the Great Books of Western Civilization before?
DK: Coming from a STEM background, I have definitely heard of most of the titles on the Mathematics & Natural Science segment reading list, but I’m excited to actually read Euclid, Lucretius, Darwin, Newton and Aristotle, among others, this fall semester.
GIJ: I know you can’t speak for everyone in India, but how popular is the idea of a liberal education in your native country today?
DK: At the risk of offending some folks, it is a known fact that most of the top students opt for STEM as a first choice for their degrees. Unfortunately, the Liberal Arts is not considered as a lucrative career option. But yes, we have some prestigious liberal arts colleges which do attract bright minds who might then find careers in civil services, the media, or other similar fields.
GIJ: Was there a distinct moment when you knew you would drop everything and come here to St. John’s?
DK: Yes, the moment I read about the college, glanced through the curriculum, found out about the rolling admission policy and grants based on a student’s CSS profile, I knew that this was what the Divine has ordained for me.
GIJ: How was the application process for you? Did you have to take the TOEFL and the TWE?
DK: The application process was smooth. The Admissions team were extremely supportive. The language of instruction at all levels in my life, primary school to Master’s program, has been English; they were appreciative of this and considered my application without having me take the TOEFL. However, I did sit for the IELTS after receiving my acceptance letter and earned an overall score of 8.
GIJ: Have you been able to find employment?
DK: Yes, I was able to find employment on campus within ten days of arriving here — thank you, Financial Aid team! But the restriction of on-campus work to limited hours and a meagre pay rate does make things difficult, if you know what I mean.
GIJ: How did you find a place to live off-campus?
DK: Being resourceful, persistent, and extremely plan-oriented does have its benefits! But also, the Admissions office was, again, extremely supportive after I was candid about my inability to afford on-campus accommodation [for the summer]. I requested them to pass along any tips regarding off-campus accommodation; one reference led to another, and I settled my housing plans before leaving India. I now live only a ten minute walk from campus with bunch of other Johnnies, though they are alumni, not GI’s.
GIJ: Without getting too personal, how can you afford this? You must’ve received some aid from filling out the CSS profile you mentioned earlier?
DK: Yes, I got a grant towards my tuition fee which took care of a part of the expenses. I am using all my savings and have taken out a personal loan, as well. You can call me a real-life example of putting my money where my mouth is! I do, however, wish International students were eligible for a complete tuition waiver or assistance in the form of an interest-free loan to be repaid within a few years of the completion of the program.
GIJ: I know it’s been only a few months since you’ve started St. John’s, but have you noticed any change in your approach to critical thinking or group inquiry? Growth? Challenges to growth?
DK: The culture where I come from has historically and civilisationally encouraged a spirit of enquiry, and discussions (Vaada) are a part of that. That changed with colonization, when the education system was designed to thwart the spirit of enquiry; as a student, you were encouraged to focus more on securing good marks and a successful career, and less on cultured behavior and discussions. Unfortunately, even after our independence from the British, there was no visible attempt to revive our indigenous Indic pedagogy. This is why St. John’s has proved to be such a refreshing change with its emphasis on “Great Minds think!” The rigorous reading and discussions centered around the text is new for me. Already I find myself looking at old assumptions in a new light and pondering more deeply into the nature of things. But I do sometimes feel that the American students need to be encouraged to go deeper: anything spiritual or metaphysical seems to be extremely alien to them and that has stood out for me, but perhaps it’s only cultural. On a lighter note, did you see how even in my response, I sound more and more like a Johnnie?
GIJ: How do you plan to complete the degree?
DK: With flying colors, from my lips to the Divine’s ears! I will take consecutive semesters, taking every segment but History, and finish next August.
GIJ: The Graduate Institute at St. John’s also offers a degree in Eastern Classics which includes reading the masterworks of Ancient India. If you had the time and money, and upon graduating here in Annapolis, would you travel the measly 2,000 miles to Santa Fe for a third Master’s?
DK: If St. John’s should sponsor my tuition and other expenses for that degree, then yes. In return, I would promise to help them create collaborations in India. This is not a statement in jest; I do intend to create a Great Books of Indic Civilisation program in the very near future in my country.
GIJ: Which brings me to my final question, Ms. Kaul — what’s next for you, after St. John’s?
DK: I am working towards my long-term career goal of working in and contributing to the field of education and academia, and surrendering to the Divine to guide me towards the realisation of my highest potential.