Globetrotting Student Wins Merage Scholarship
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Nandini Chattopadhyay is a multilingual world traveler who is driven in life by a passion -- getting to know different cultures and understanding their philosophies.

When the Indian-born girl arrived in the United States, some five years ago, she enrolled at SF State not knowing what she wanted to major on. While at school, she held one, sometimes two, part-time jobs. The money was spent on what she liked the most: traveling.

Her black eyes have seen the beauties of Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, and Brazil. She has also lived in Montreal, Canada, where she attended McGill University for a year. But she says that she doesn’t like traveling as a tourist.

"I like to stay and make connections with people to really feel and understand their culture," said Chattopadhyay. "When I went to Brazil for example, I only spent one month there and I felt like I wanted to go back for at least a year to learn more about their music, their culture and their history.”

A decision for a major “came naturally,” explains the 24-year-old. “Anthropology -- learning what different societies are like -- that is what I have naturally been doing all my life.”

Financial support for her dreams came when an e-mail was sent to her announcing the first year of the Merage Institute for The American Dream Immigrant Student Scholarship. The $20,000 scholarship is offered to immigrant students who want to go to graduate school, have become U.S. citizens, or intend to become one and held a green card.

“I sent an e-mail to all (SF State) seniors who had a GPA over 3.7," said Beverly Voloshin, faculty coordinator of the academic honors and scholarships office at SF State. "A lot of students showed interest in the scholarship and about eight of them completed the entire application process, Nandini (Chattopadhyay) was one of them. There were 15 awards to be given among nominees from 21 universities countrywide. Each university could nominate up to three students, and most of those were elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Princeton University. It was very competitive," she said.

“Nandini (Chattopadhyay) showed really good leadership qualities. She has done very interesting anthropology research work in India. She has also volunteered for a fundraising event for homeless Brazilian children.” said Voloshin, who is also the chair of award’s selection committee.

Chattopadhyay is going to use the first half of the award, which is given in two annual installments, to develop her multimedia project involving the disenfranchised Afro-Brazilian communities in the state of Bahia, Brazil. The other half will be for her graduate school expenses, which she hopes will be at either Berkeley or Stanford. “If not I’ll go to the University of Hawaii, where the weather is better.”

“When she heard that she had won she called me immediately," said Neshna Friend, 37, who has been friends with Chattopadhyay for over two years. "She couldn’t even speak. But I wasn’t surprised because what she wanted to do was so original and excellent that I knew she was going to win it."

“When I went to the city of Salvador, in Bahia, I was impressed by how the community there expressed their voices through music and arts," said Chattopadhyay, who is fascinated by all types of music. "So I want this project to be not just my perspective of that community but I want them to be involved in it. I am going to produce it through their eyes."

She plans to distribute disposable cameras to the community, including children, so they can take pictures of what is important to them. She hopes to put together photos, images and sounds into one package that should translate the impact of arts in those people’s lives.

For someone who speaks Bengali, Hindi, French, English and some Spanish, the new Portuguese language does not seem to intimidate the long-haired, smiling girl. “When I was there (in Brazil) I couldn’t really speak the language, but I felt like I understood everybody. I’m sure it will be OK,” she said.

“Pushkin (a nickname which most of her friends and relatives call Chattopadhyay) is always ready for anything. She is not afraid and she is always ready to go,” said her friend and study partner Nina Giampaoli, an anthropology major at SF State.

Flying from Singapore to the United States on a one day notice might have contributed to those traits. Chattopadhyay received her green card a day before she turned 21. Because she had gotten it though her father, who owned a software company in Singapore, she had to be a minor by the time she entered the United States. She and her family left Singapore at 6 p.m. and with the advantage of the 12-hour difference they arrived at 8 p.m. in the U.S., she said.

But that gave her the chance to attend an American university, which is what she wanted to do, and the freedom to come and go as she will, which is what she likes to do.

“There are so many parallel realities in life and I just like learning about those," she said. "There is no right way for anything in life. If every one understood that there are so many different ways of seeing and thinking about something, if they judged less what they see, the world would be a much better place," she said.

“She is really optimistic, and one of those really warm people. She is always wearing bright yellow, orange colors that match with that beautiful brown skin tone she has. She is just a wonderful person,” said Giampaoli.

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