I sat down with Swetha outside a State Street café this past Saturday, April 23rd, to hear more about her award-winning project working to remedy systemic poverty in several Wisconsin counties (for more on this project, click here). And while hearing about her project was fascinating, I was particularly curious about the way her French degree served her during her time here at UW, and how it may or may not have informed her perspective and research in STEM. It was a warm, sunny day, and what was originally intended to be an interview blossomed into a stimulating conversation that spanned a wide range of topics : from the struggles of communicating in a foreign language, to the myriad factors contributing to systemic poverty, to the dignity of telling one’s story & being heard, to the very real conflict taking place here on campus. Below is an abridged version of this expansive conversation : I hope you enjoy reading it! – Ben
BEN : So on the one hand, you’ve got this really amazing project going on. But on the other hand, you’ve got this French degree that you’re pursuing. Do you feel like the French degree has informed your work in this fellowship, or not so much?
SWETHA : It has informed my way of thinking [in general], not this particular project. As a freshman, I wasn’t really sure what to major in, but I took this French class, and the teacher really inspired me. She taught me how to think critically about basically everything, from art to literature –
BEN : – this is a French class at UW?
SWETHA : at UW, it was with.. Madame Miernowska?
BEN : Ewa Miernowska? Yeah.
SWETHA : She inspired me to think critically and then every class I’ve been in… you can see that [the teachers] really care about you… This might be common across all language majors, but I’ve really seen this with French. To have someone care about the way you think, it really helps you because you can develop your thinking style in the comfort of a classroom, with some guidance as well. Also, learning a foreign language puts you in a place where you’re not completely comfortable all the time, which I think is great. When you’re in a classroom and you’re not comfortable, that means you’re doing things right, because you’re learning. And that has taught me to be a better leader – a leader in general – and to think critically about our society, which relates to [my Wisconsin Idea fellowship] project.
BEN : […] Can you speak on the ways that the French class made you feel discomfort in a productive way, different from other classes?
SWETHA : When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really difficult to get out exactly what you’re thinking, and a lot of times it can be hard to communicate with your teacher, hard to communicate with your classmates. And what you say can be misinterpreted. So having that discomfort inspired me to work harder to understand what other people mean. What you say is not always what you’re thinking, and French class helped me [understand] that. Because if you don’t know the language fluently, it’s kind of difficult to convey what you’re saying. I think the discomfort and being able to overcome it empowered me. It just made me feel like I could do a lot more than I [had previously thought I] was capable of. I know that sounds kinda cheesy, but…
BEN : If I could just ask you to elaborate a little bit, it sounded like your experience taking French classes, […] it was so hard to communicate, that you had to learn to interpret, […] Would you say meeting the other person halfway?
SWETHA : Yeah I think that’s a really important skill that you learn in French. And that has helped me because there’s always another story to things, even though we were learning another language, we got super good at reading body language. Because not everyone says what they wanna say. I think that’s also important in the focus groups that we’ve been holding, because I’m a better reader of body language and communicator in general because of French, I’m better able to communicate with individuals, especially if they’re having a hard time saying things.
BEN : So the second thing: you spoke a little bit on Professor Miernowska’s class. She taught you to think critically, or she helped you cultivate that. Can you speak on what that means to you? What does that mean to you to think critically?
SWETHA : I guess to think critically… In our society, where everything is available, right in front of us, where we can just type something into Google and it’s there, you have to be incredibly careful with what the media’s portraying, the government’s portraying […], there’s always many, many layers: not just one, not just two. I think that through French classes, you read a book, you look at a painting, you don’t really understand fully what the artist was trying to portray – but a lot of my French teachers have taught me to dig deeper, to think about every word, how [the artist] structured their paragraph, how they structured their sentence. Everything has a meaning.
SWETHA : We’ve been talking a lot about the hidden truth in [Prof. Florence Vatan’s] class, and I never really realized the extent of corruption in general, that it can silence an entire group of people for almost 40 years. I think that the way that we learned about it was really important, and the way that she taught us, really helped me grow and be able to see the truth, which is a lot of times hidden.
BEN : So, ‘the hidden truth’ : can you speak a little bit on what you’re talking about there?
SWETHA : So we are learning about the massacre in October 1961 in Paris. There were over 300 Algerians brutally killed and pushed into the Seine, because they were holding a peaceful protest against a racist curfew. And the next day, the blood was gone, the bodies were gone, nothing was there; two, three journals – newspapers – said something about the protests, but nothing about the police being there. It was hidden, and nobody talked about it until the 1990s-2000s when authors, artists and historians started uncovering this and saying “this is what happened”. And I just think that’s insane. I think people in general are afraid to admit what they’ve done wrong, and it’s hard for them to move on – especially the French government. Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis, was also the one who had told the police to kill all these Algerians. So nothing was done after the collaboration, after the Vichy, to bring truth to what a lot of politicians and police officers did, and a lot of them kept their positions: and because of that, all these people suffered. And I think that’s an important thing for society in general to learn, and this is why history is so important. [… These atrocities are] still going on right now, it’s definitely not [just] history. And because people refuse to see the problem with covering up what they do or silencing people, it keeps happening. Right now, there are massive deportations of South Americans and Central Americans and no one’s talking about it, no one really knows what’s going on, and that’s [just] one example. Sexual assault, as well. People are being silenced because it’s too painful to talk about. But there’s a huge problem, especially on this campus, – I’m sure it’s been a problem – and silencing those voices or not acknowledging that these people are telling the truth is creating the problem, and it’s gonna keep going on for a long time.
SWETHA : Right.
BEN : Can you speak a little bit on your experience in [Prof. Vatan’s] classroom, how many students are in there, the general feel for it?
SWETHA : Actually this class is very small, about ten students. And she creates a really open environment. I share a lot of things in that environment that I wouldn’t do in other classes, where I feel…. I just feel like the way she reacts to our comments is very encouraging and also challenging: she challenges us to think more about it. She’ll always come back with a certain comment, like, “what do you think about this?” When we were speaking about immigration, I wouldn’t normally share my immigration story, but I did, and it was nice to share it with the class. She creates a really accepting, safe and open environment; the other students in the class, too. We’re all upperclassmen, and we’ve been in French classes and we all understand the courage it takes to not only speak, but to speak on something personal, or difficult –
BEN : – In a foreign language, too!
SWETHA : In a foreign language too, yeah. […] I would say there is support from Professor [Vatan], which was really powerful to me, because in my other majors not a lot of people or professors go out of their way to truly understand their students, and I just thought “oh here’s someone who wants to listen to me.”
BEN : Thank you for taking this time to talk with me!
SWETHA : Thank you so much!
Ben Hair is a graduate student dissertator in French & Italian here at UW-Madison. His thesis establishes the absurd as a human phenomenon and analyzes how it manifests in Jean Racine’s neoclassical tragedies in the 17th century. He has active interests in philosophy, theology, social justice, and comics.