Tribute to Alana

On what seemed like a highly typical Tuesday afternoon, I unloaded my backpack and plopped down on a plush bean bag chair at the CWC. Ever since the first week of the semester, I had spent almost every morning, afternoon, and many evenings and nights there. At first, I had used the center merely to sit down quietly and finish my numerous reading and writing assignments, but soon, I began to prefer the writing center over my dormitory room as a place to relax and unload my stress. In spite of the fact that the CWC is a place full of ambitious, intellectual, and extremely talented minds, there is something about it that makes it a comfortable, home-like place. The chairs in the room are bright and candy-green-apple coloured and it is sprinkled with art projects; there are multicoloured paper stars, paper-machet trinkets, drawings, scrap pieces of paper, and an unfinished mural that a few students have been painting. In just a few months, the CWC has already become a meaningful space to many students, but it continues to bloom and grow every day. It is an unfinished story that is just waiting to be fleshed out.

I had scarcely started on my usual de-stressing routine, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and recovering from the long day of classes, when I heard one of the tutors call me.

“P-dog!” Lauren, my teaching assistant who also worked as a tutor at the CWC leaned out from the news room, a room in the center separated by a clear glass window and a set of glass doors. “Can you come in here for a second?” She looked to the other end of the room and called another girl who visited the CWC regularly. “Uttara, can you also come in here for a second?”

I hesitated, and possibilities started to fill my mind. Was something wrong? Was I in trouble? Why would she want to talk to me? And if she did want to talk to me, why would she call the two of us in private? We were friendly with each other, but we had virtually no connection aside from our frequent hours spent at the CWC.

I scarcely had time to think as I stepped into the newsroom and spotted another girl, Manisha, who looked as if she was about to burst into tears. My heart started to race; whatever it was, it definitely would not be good.

Lauren could probably sense my apprehension, as she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t be worried.”

Manisha started to wipe her eyes, and even Lauren, who never seemed phased by anything, looked tearful. “I just wanted you guys to hear this from us before someone else tells you. Alana has resigned.”

Everyone started to wipe their eyes feverishly, including Lauren. At the sight of Lauren’s tearful face, I felt my eyes stinging, and tear poured out before I could stop them. Lauren’s face crumbled, uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotion, and she buried her face on the table. I couldn’t say that it was completely unexpected, but it was extremely upsetting, no matter how foreseeable it might have been.

I had always loved to write and read, but I had never considered studying it before the summer when I applied to the university. I had spent most of the summer furiously scribbling down anecdotes, personal reflections, and streams of consciousness in my journal. I had completed a study abroad program in Italy, and I brought my journal with me almost everywhere I went. It was what helped me get through the stress of the experience, and I started to consider the possibility of becoming a professional writer. When I heard about the description of the CWC, I was extremely excited at the prospect. My previous university had a writing center, but it was a small, windowless room, and my experience with the tutors had been overwhelmingly disappointing. I had the feeling that it was a half-hearted project, set up in the university almost as an afterthought. Based on the description, the CWC seemed to be quite the opposite. It seemed to be an extremely important element of the vision of the university, and it seemed that the director of the center, Alana, had been through painstaking efforts to make it an intellectually stimulating environment. Alana then interviewed me for the admissions process, so I got the chance to ask her about it face to face, albeit through a Skype window. I was extremely surprised to learn that she had read my favorite book, Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. She is the only person I have met who has read it so far, as it is one of Coelho’s less well known novels. I remember that she asked me why, in my admissions essay detailing my favorite book, I had not included one crucial element of the book, as she believed it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. This launched us into the topic of relative thinking, and how different people might read the same story and have different ideas about which elements are important.

During the first week of university, I came to visit the CWC before my morning class. It was my first time visiting, and I walked slowly and deliberately, unsure if these were even the hours during which CWC was operational. I inched closer to the door, peering in, when I spotted the opening to Alana’s office, just outside the center.

She waved when she saw me. “Hi, Paheli.”

“Hi,” I said cautiously. “I was wondering if I would sit and read in the writing centre?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, smiling. “We’re not open right now, but you can still sit there. I’ll tell the tutors you’re there.”

She led me into the room, and I sat on one of the light green chairs and began to focus on my work, drowning out the chattering noises as the four tutors began to settle into the room. Then, slowly, Alana approached me. “Do you have a minute?”

She introduced me to the four tutors: Susannah, Lauren, Katherine, and Nina. She told them that I was from the United States, as were three of the tutors. She and Katherine pulled up two plush green chairs to sit next to me. They began to ask me about how I was finding Ashoka so far. “What do you miss?” Alana asked me, and there was a genuine sense of curiosity in her bright blue eyes. I almost wanted to spurt out all out all the difficulties I had with food and adjusting to the culture, but I hesitated. “Well, I don’t want to be negative…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “This is a safe space.” Somehow, her words stuck with me, and I soon began to see the CWC as just that. A safe space.

During the first month, Alana was always extremely present in the CWC and in student activities. At our first student newspaper meeting, she was there, beaming and stealing photographs of excited students. She organized for us to come and paint the wall in the back, turning it into a mural. She and the tutors stayed in the center until as late as ten o clock at night so that we could work there. She also made sure that the wall was a group effort, and that no one student would become too dominating. I had been thinking about starting an animal rights organization on campus, and she was very excited about the possibility. She sent me links about interesting dog-friendly initiatives in other countries, and she told me that she would help me with what that she could. She organized for fun workshops at the CWC, and each night, one could find her meticulously hanging carefully selected posters on the walls. She was nailing them into the wall all by herself, refusing help from anyone who offered. She was absolutely devoted to the CWC, and she was an active, independent, and consistent presence there.

Not only was she devoted to students’ intellectual and artistic enrichment, but she was also very open on a personal level. She insisted that everyone call her Alana, rather than the more formal Professor Sobelman. It took me a while to get used to, and I went through an intermediate phase of calling her “Professor Alana.” During the first few weeks, she invited me to go on a walk with her around the campus in the early morning. It was very pleasant; the weather was subdued, the birds were still chirping, and on the way, we met two friendly stray dogs. Since we were right near the faculty apartment building, she ran upstairs and brought some bread for us to feed the dogs. I remember marveling at the precious experience, as I could never imagine connecting with the daunting faculty members at my previous university on such a personal level. I also confided in her about a personal issue I was having regarding rude comments that a staff member had made, and she was incredibly supportive. She struck me as an extremely sensitive and caring person.

She even offered to make food for me once, as I was struggling with keeping up my vegan lifestyle. “I make a killer vegan chilli,” she had told me. “I was able to get tofu from some of the more bourgeois markets in Gurgaon.” I truly admired her for her sense of adventure and fearlessness. The fact that she had been to the Haryana village markets to get vegetables completely on her own, as a foreign woman, not to mention the underlying fact that she had come all the way to India on her own, encouraged me to venture into the city to obtain food for myself. I ended up buying a lot of material to make meals for myself, and the first thing I did when I returned was send her a long, proud email about my adventures on the Delhi metro and at the crowded and unfamiliar markets. “Congratulations, Paheli,” she had responded almost immediately. “You are officially a traveler, rather than a tourist.”

During the next month and a half, Alana was still there, but she was less present within the center itself. She was always slaving away at her desk with her copious pile of work, or attending one of her frequent and never ending meetings. I remember feeling confused, because she was less responsive to emails and appeared more distant in person. Previously, she used to greet me cheerfully every day in the CWC with a conversation, a pat on the shoulder, or at least a wave, but now she seemed hassled and preoccupied. For a while, I wondered if it was something I had done- had I said something too personal? Did I make her uncomfortable? Was my constant presence at the CWC annoying? Such thoughts nagged the back of my mind for weeks, until one day when I left the CWC to go to lunch at around the same time when she was leaving her office. I walked down the three flights of stairs with her. She had certainly changed. She seemed distant from the conversation, and her responses seemed delayed. She had always been graceful with all of her movements, but something about them now seemed lethargic, almost robotic. What struck me the most were her eyes; they seemed distant, glossed over, and it seemed as if she could barely keep them open.

“Are you alright?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “You seem really tired.”

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said, and a grin started to spread across her face. “But my husband’s just moved in, and my cat, finally, so I’m very happy.”

I smiled, and felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. Even though she said she was happy, I couldn’t get over how drastically the exhaustion had changed her appearance and interactions. I didn’t know what was keeping her so busy, but whatever it was seemed to be beyond me. I decided to leave her alone for some time and try to give up my pride. I felt silly for thinking as if I were important enough to instigate such a huge change. I could try to figure out some of the difficulties with the animal organization on my own; it wasn’t necessary to add to her already teeming plate. At the time, I thought that everything would die down and she would soon return to the normal, bright and cheerful, caring, helpful, and adventurous figure that I had come to admire so intensely.

There is no doubt in my mind that she has thought through the decision to resign carefully, and she must have truly believed that it was the best option. She is a go-getter; she was extremely devoted to her project, and she is not someone to just give up without an extremely good reason. It is incredible how she was able to touch so many people, in such a profound way and in such a short amount of time! I know so many students who made the tough decision to come to this university because of her, and everyone who has interacted with her and experienced her kindness will be extremely sad to see her go. The tutors, who are taking over her responsibilities at the center until they hire a new director, have not been themselves this week. They have still been diligent about their teaching responsibilities, but there is an underlying sense of gloom in the center. Alana was was the one who gave birth to the CWC, which had become a favorite haunt for an increasing number of students. The university has lost an extremely valuable asset to the community, but she will certainly not be forgotten. I believe that she has left behind an amazing legacy in the CWC and in everyone who knew her. This legacy will certainly continue to shape the culture at the university.

While I am sad to see her go so soon, I truly believe that her adventurous, go-getter attitude will encourage me to explore more, and venture further out of my comfort zone. It will continue to impact me wherever my life takes me next.

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