Sitting at a bistro table beneath the Dale Chihuly Clear and Gold Tower sculpture in the atrium of Williston Library, Samyukta Jadeja ’21 reflected on the catalyst that inspired her to leave her home in Jaipur, India, and travel more than 7,000 miles to study at Mount Holyoke College.
“It all sounds very dramatic, like something out of a movie,” she said. “But Shakti not only changed my opinion about Mount Holyoke College, it changed the course of my life.”
In this case, “Shakti” — both a Hindi word for power and the name of a Hindu goddess — refers to an annual two-day conference in Mumbai. Sponsored by the College in partnership with the American School of Bombay, the MHC Shakti Program is India’s premier career-leadership event designed specifically for girls in grades 11 and 12.
The initial spark for the program was struck during a trip that Sonya Stephens — then Mount Holyoke’s dean of faculty and now acting president and president-elect — made to India in 2014. While there, she met with Indian alumnae who were exploring ways for the College to engage with the country.
The inaugural MHC Shakti Program took place in August 2016. Organized by the Office of Admission with advice from Shoba Narayan ’87, Vijaya Pastala ’89 and Gayatri Rangachari Shah ’94, the goal was to unlock the leadership potential of the next generation of Indian women while honoring their personal value systems.
Somewhat reluctantly, Samyukta Jadeja attended Shakti 2016 at the urging of her parents and a close family friend, a guidance counselor with a high opinion of Mount Holyoke.
“I’d been at an all-girl boarding school since seventh grade, and I was not at all keen on attending a women’s college,” Jadeja said. “I wanted a change and a different environment. But my parents were very excited about Shakti, so I thought, why not just give it a try.”
Empowering and inspiring
The MHC Shakti Program includes interactive workshops on a range of subjects such as developing voice and self-awareness, discussing leadership opportunities and challenges, networking, and preparing for success in keeping with personal values.
Among the presenters are Mount Holyoke professors. During the 2017 event, Katherine Aidala, the chair of the physics department, led a presentation entitled Gender, Bias and Leadership. The young women, from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, were “amazing, enthusiastic and thoughtful,” she said.
“At its core, the MHC Shakti Program empowers young women to see what’s possible in their lives,” Aidala said. “These students brought perspectives from very different experiences, which only enhanced the conference.”
Also presenting are successful Indian women leaders, many of them College alumnae. They share their career experiences and insight on the future of women and leadership in India as part of panel discussions. The speakers also share how they came both to know themselves and to access their values as they became leaders.
The experience is, by all accounts, transformative, said Amy Markham, associate dean of admission and director of international admission.
“The students come away inspired by highly successful women who are transparent not only about their professional journeys, but also about striking the difficult balance between honoring family obligations and following their own paths and priorities,” Markham said.
One such speaker was Mahua Moitra ’98, an investment banker-turned-politician and member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from Karimpur, a town along the border of India and Bangladesh. Jadeja described Moitra, the only woman politician working along that contentious border, as fierce and impressive.
“At Shakti, I met phenomenal women changing the world,” said Jadeja. “The speakers at Shakti are real change-makers, just like Mount Holyoke promises to help you become. That resonated with me, because I want to make a difference in this world.”
At the end of the first day, Jadeja met up with her mother and announced, “Baby’s starting Mount Holyoke in the fall!”
She then explained the reference to her mom — a line of dialogue from the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing,” which the College has claimed as its own, showing the movie to new students as part of Orientation — who was impressed by how quickly and thoroughly the program had changed her daughter’s mind.
When reality meets expectation
On the night before returning home for the summer, with the first year of college taking its place in her rear-view mirror, Jadeja noted that the College has met the expectations she formed at Shakti and her enthusiasm for Mount Holyoke has only increased. Her favorite course? Migration Through Film, taught by Leyla Keough, a visiting lecturer in anthropology, which explored migrant narratives and the migration process in popular and documentary films.
“It was eye-opening,” said Jadeja. “Every course I’ve taken has been like that. I’m learning so much all the time — from professors and students.”
She considers history professor Holly Hanson another stand-out. Hanson taught How Wars End, Jadeja’s first-year seminar, a required course for new students that offers a choice of more than 30 course topics.
“The Mount Holyoke College faculty really cares about the students,” said Jadeja. “Professor Hanson has always been there for me, and I know I can talk to her whenever I feel overwhelmed about school or being in the States. That kind of support makes such a difference.”
The exposure to new perspectives also excites Jadeja. While she understood intellectually that sexism existed, she thought she had never experienced it. During her first semester at Mount Holyoke, Jadeja realized just how much sexism she had already faced.
“It was a revelation to look at sexism from two perspectives in completely different environments,” she said. “The difference in ages between high school and college, and differences between American and Indian cultures.”
Jadeja, whose interests lean toward political economics and activism, is wasting no time in taking on the mantle of change-maker. This year she has created a social innovation project in Jaipur, which she calls “Doosra Nivala,” which means “The Second Morsel” in Hindi. Funded by a Social Innovation Initiative grant through the College’s McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, her project focuses on food security. Over the summer break she’ll divert clean surplus food from the households and restaurants in her community to those in need.
This project stems, in part, from Jadeja’s new-found independence — one of several benefits she attributes to attending Mount Holyoke.
“I’m so much more independent,” she said. “But it’s more than that. I love Mount Holyoke because it’s an institution that fosters acceptance. I’m not judged for my ideas. I feel validated and that my opinions matter.”
Jadeja plans to keep her mind open to new experiences and opportunities. After all, that strategy led her to the MHC Shakti Program and an emerging path to becoming a change-making leader in India.
“Without doubt, the Shakti Program opened my eyes to possibilities, and Mount Holyoke is empowering me to realize them,” she said. “I want to take everything I learn here and bring it home to my country.”
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