Although Ananya Agustin Malhotra ’20 and Serena Alagappan ’20 come from different fields, the two recently named Rhodes Scholars have much in common when it comes to how they approach academia and the issues they care about.
In a joint interview with The Daily Princetonian, Malhotra and Alagappan discussed their shared interests in interdisciplinarity, narrative-based approaches to academia and oral history, and the opportunity provided by the Rhodes Scholarship to explore those passions further.
“Both of us [are] interested in stories and histories that are on the margins of traditionally accepted or embraced academic disciplines,” Alagappan said. “It just feels like this precious, precious thing to have a platform [the Rhodes Scholarship] that allows for people to pay attention to the work you care about.”
As a concentrator in Comparative Literature with certificates in European Cultural Studies and Creative Writing, Alagappan spends a lot of time reading, gathering, and telling stories. Growing up, Alagappan always loved literature, language, and thinking across cultures.
“I come from a bicultural family, so thinking about bridging differences between two cultures is kind of a big part of my life,” Alagappan said. "My mom was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, my father was raised in a traditional Hindu home. So there was a lot of that intrafamilial thinking about how to find connections between disparate cultures, languages, and traditions."
Alagappan has enjoyed the freedom to build her own curriculum through the Comparative Literature department. Through her independent work, she has analyzed Latin and mockery in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and the connection between crowds and violence in Seneca, Gustave Le Bon, and Shirley Jackson.
Assistant professor of German Barbara Nagel — who taught Alagappan in the seminar “Denial, Disavowal, and the Problem of Knowing” in the fall 2018 and advised on Alagappan’s second junior paper — appreciates that Alagappan is “not conflict-averse: she has strong ethical convictions and an equally strong critical capacity, of which she makes use in a passionate but always respectful manner.”
Alagappan’s senior thesis is a collection of braided essays focused on American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, Deaf theater, and cultural arts in the Deaf community. First exposed to signed language as a middle schooler in India when she visited a school for the Deaf and Blind, Alagappan says she originally struggled to teach herself from books.
"You can imagine trying to learn a tactile, visual, dynamic language from static, printed images is just very difficult," she said.
A few years later, she encountered ASL poetry for the first time in New York City, where she lives. After another hiatus from the language, she came to the University and met Colin Lualdi ’17, the founder of the Princeton University American Sign Language Club, who helped Alagappan reconnect with ASL.
Lecturer in the Humanities Council and the Program in Linguistics Noah Buchholz emphasized the role Alagappan has played in the formation of the University’s ASL program. Alagappan has served as president of the University’s ASL club for more than three years. She taught elementary ASL at Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library for children ages nine through 12 and coordinated events for both Deaf and hearing audiences.
Since the University began offering ASL in 2018, Alagappan has taken every ASL course offered and helped push the University to offer four levels of the language. Alagappan has even translated a short book of poetry from English into ASL, a task Buchholz says only one or two of his former ASL students have been able to accomplish.
“I cannot emphasize enough how much I truly enjoy working with her as her ASL teacher and one of her advisors for her thesis project,” Buchholz wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ “I especially appreciate her sharp literary eyes, which brilliantly capture many nuances in ASL stories and poems discussed in class.”
While Alagappan has appreciated the opportunity to study ASL deeply as one of her languages through Comparative Literature, alongside French and Latin, she hopes the University will respond to the growth of ASL courses by endowing the program and allowing ASL to count toward the foreign language requirement.
"I believe anyone who has been gifted with the opportunity to study this language would hope to see ASL become eligible for the foreign language requirement at Princeton,“ Alagappan said. “What is more, I imagine upper-level ASL courses offered in translation, poetics, and Deaf history."
Alagappan aims for her senior thesis essays to "serve as points of entry for the hearing world to embrace the communicative potential of the entire human form, both in art and in everyday language."
In addition to being president of the ASL Club, Alagappan is a member of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, a selective group bringing juniors and seniors together for monthly dinners and humanistic inquiry; an undergraduate liaison for the Department of Comparative Literature; a volunteer with Homefront, a nonprofit committed to helping homeless families become self-sufficient; and the editor-in-chief of The Nassau Weekly.
She is a published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has interned at O, The Oprah Magazine. During the summer of 2019, she worked as an oral history intern and writer at the Religion and Resettlement Project through the Office of Religious Life. She received a Peter B. Lewis Grant in 2018 for an independent creative writing project on literary pilgrimage and a John McPhee ’53 Award for projects in independent journalism last summer.
Malhotra shares Alagappan’s love of narratives and interdisciplinarity. She also identified her experiences growing up as shaping her academic path.
“I grew up in a predominantly white and conservative county in Georgia called Forsyth County before moving to Atlanta during my junior year of high school,” Malhotra said. “I grew up in a bicultural and interfaith household where my mom was Catholic from the Philippines and my dad was Indian and Hindu. There was no one else that looked like us, and my only understanding of community was transnational.”
Growing up in a household where three languages were spoken surrounded by otherwise predominantly white, southern, and conservative communities, Malhotra was always conscious of a wider world beyond her town that would be “full of beauty as well as pain and trauma.”
Malhotra took her desire to study the world and channeled it into her concentration within the Wilson School and her certificates in French and European Cultural studies, though she admits that she would also have been happy in Comparative Literature with Alagappan.
“I have this similar love of literature, language, and the ways that it opens up worlds for us when they’re not present around us,” Malhotra said. “For me, the question of where history, politics, culture, and literature come together is kind of what motivated me to approach my study of the world from extremely different angles.”
Malhotra’s transdisciplinary studies focus on histories of trauma and postcolonial studies. During her junior year, Malhotra’s independent work focused on how America’s history of colonialism manifests through the relationship between President Donald Trump and Phillippine President Rodrigo Duterte and how the impacts of Haiti’s encounters with French colonialism and U.S. imperialism manifest in the peacekeeping project of the United Nations since the 1990s.
Her senior thesis aims to explore the collective remembrance of the nuclear age in the United States by looking at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and Trinity Testing Site as sites of memory, or lieux de mémoire. Particularly, Malhotra seeks to focus on “the nuclear victimization, suffering, and marginalization of communities around the bomb” and how public history and policy has embedded “political, social, and ecological silences into the nuclear narrative.”
Dr. Zia Mian, Research Scientist and Co-Director of the Program in Science and Global Security within the Wilson School, advises Malhotra on her senior thesis. He wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince’: “Ananya is an outstanding next-generation scholar with a keen critical sensibility, great curiosity and creativity, and a humanist compass that she applies to understanding and changing our world for the better.”
Outside of the classroom, Malhotra is president of the SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising Resources and Education) Peer Program. Dr. Avina Ross, the Associate Director of the SHARE Office, worked closely with Ananya through the SHARE Peer Program, “watching her grow into a confident student advocate, leader and visionary who puts vision into practice for results.”
“Her diplomacy skills, empathy, decision-making and capacities to mentor new SHARE Peers have truly impressed me and been strong assets to the program,” Ross wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “I've learned from Ananya as well, such as about the power and effective impact of softer student leadership styles at Princeton.”
Malhotra is also a co-founder of the Office of Religious Life’s UN Women Faith and Gender Justice Fellowship, a founding officer of Princeton Students for Gender Equality, a member of Princeton Filipino Community, and an undergraduate fellow at Princeton’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination’s Project on Gender in the Global Community and Program on Religion, Diplomacy and International Relations.
Additionally, she is a fellow of the European Union Program at the Wilson School, a member of the Behrman Society of Undergraduate Fellows, and a Humanities Council mentor for first-year students.
Malhotra conducted research in Rome in fall 2018, served as a legal research intern at the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest in summer 2018, and worked on gender equality initiatives as the faith and youth engagement intern in the Civil Society and Peace & Security Divisions at UN Women in New York.
Malhotra’s friends highlight her compassion and authenticity.
“As a friend, Ananya is extremely empathetic and makes others feel heard in a way that I have found to be quite rare,” said Gabriela Rivera ’20, Malhotra’s roommate, in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ “She is always sharing her observations, reflections and criticisms of the world, demonstrating her love for learning while naturally engaging others in important conversations. Her care for people and dedication to the work she does makes me confident that she will do something incredibly meaningful with this opportunity.”
Shafaq Khan ’21, another friend of Malhotra, agreed.
“Ananya’s humility is a marked feature of her personality, one that perennially inspires those around her,” Khan wrote in a statement. “She is thoughtful, compassionate, and determined. She is authentic and has challenged the most basic notions of elitism at Princeton. I am excited for her to continue this practice of disrupting institutions during her time at Oxford.”
As Rhodes Scholars, Malhotra and Alagappan will join 30 other recipients from the United States in participating in two to three years of graduate study at Oxford funded by the scholarship beginning in September 2020.
Both Malhotra and Alagappan plan to continue working in interdisciplinary ways. Alagappan plans to pursue an M.Sc. in Social Anthropology and an M.St. in World Literatures in English. Malhotra originally planned to pursue the two-year M.Phil. in international relations but could also see herself studying Global and Imperial History or Intellectual History.
“I’m figuring out if I need to choose a discipline in my approach to the world or if I’m just going to continue kind of doing my own thing,” Malhotra said with a laugh.
Alagappan agreed; she would become a scholar of “interdisciplinary studies” if the field existed.
"I think that interdisciplinary work is really fruitful and actually vital to having productive conversations with all members of society. I think the collaborative nature of this kind of humanistic study cultivates empathy," Alagappan said.
Alagappan ultimately plans to become an author of creative nonfiction, using the patient and nuanced skill set of a modern anthropologist to listen to people’s stories and develop a co-created narrative with them without viewing them as simply a source from which to extract information.
After Oxford, Malhotra aspires to study international law, human rights law, and international political thought and history through a joint J.D./Ph.D. program.
Both recipients are incredibly grateful for the platform the Rhodes Scholarship provides as a chance to bring light to the issues they are passionate about.
“It feels like an indescribable opportunity to feel like maybe it’s not just me that cares about these things,” Malhotra said. “An embodied approach to academia, stories, human histories, people at the center of everything that we purport to be studying, thinking about, theorizing about — they matter. It does feel really shocking and amazing and exhilarating that the world might care.”