From the Himalayan foothills to a Pennsylvania liberal arts college: an interview with Preeti Rajendran
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into college counseling?
So, it’s a bit of an “all over the place” story. I was born in Papua New Guinea and spent my early years on a ship. A floating bookstore that travelled around the world bringing books to developing nations, like an amazon.com but on a ship. Eventually, my family decided to move back to India. When I was in the 10th grade at Clarence High School in Bangalore, I knew I wanted to go into counseling and worked my entire way through high school and later college, finishing a Master’s in Clinical Psychology with a focus on third culture kid identity along with marriage and family therapy.
After my M.A. I stayed on in Chicago for a year before moving back to India. I visited a friend I knew from Chicago who was working at Woodstock School and she suggested I come on board. I did and fell in love with Woodstock and was there for nine years.
About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to try working on the higher education side for a while. Change is good. One of the first people that I reached out to was Kristin Crosby, Director of International Recruitment here at Washington & Jefferson College. We actually talked about my goals at the International ACAC Conference, before I was planning to leave Woodstock, and although I applied for jobs at campuses all over the U.S., the H1B status continued to be a challenge. Then three months into leaving Woodstock, Kristin emailed me and asked: we're looking to hire and we'd think you’d make a great addition.
Now that you have been at Washington & Jefferson College for seven months, can you share one thing that has surprised you in your new role?
I still get to spend a lot of time with students. We have a relatively tight group of international students with a total student population of some 1,400 all together. It's easy to keep track of international students, have dinner with them, talk about internships, check on how they are doing, making them chai and Shin Ramyun, helping them store their boxes in my house before they leave for the summer (not kidding). I love that I still get the luxury of spending time on campus and time with students. Woodstock made me love this part of my role, and I am able to continue it at W&J!
What are three things that those currently working in admissions and recruitment should know about India?
First, there are just as many well-off Indian students as there are students who have limited needs. They are all looking for the same opportunities to go to the U.S. and so at the end of the day you have to juggle what's best for each student.
That leads to the next point: sometimes, it's better to encourage a student to stay on in India and do their undergraduate study there. A growing number are looking at Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University and others. I think there's a shift, a pride in young people for what India is and a lot of these young people want to sustain their culture and keep India moving forward. There is a building excitement of what education can look like and strides toward making it happen.
Third, there's an excitement in India about what a U.S.-style undergraduate education – and in particular liberal arts colleges – can offer. It's a slow shift, but it's a definite shift. Students and families are starting to realize the importance of giving themselves that option, something that's not engineering, or medicine. When I was recruiting for W&J recently in India, the number of kids that came up to me from national schools and said they're looking specifically for small, liberal arts colleges was fantastic. I was so excited. And just seeing that change in the thinking of young people is just wonderful.
What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a college counselor in India?
India is of course colorful, loud, busy, has exceptional shopping. It can be insanely hot in the plains, but then you can find refuge in the mountains, and it can be freezing in the mountains, and you can find yourself on a beach in Kerala.
Education is booming in a very different way in India. There are so many opportunities. It's not just the school you're working for, you are embracing a lifestyle in a rapidly changing India. Schools all over India are plugged into a society that is looking to make a difference.
It's a very exciting time.