The easy-going, yet zealous Lindsay Pennala is more than an animal-loving badass who shaved the side of her head just because. She is a lover of all things travel and adventure with motives that far exceed what’s in it for her.
The senior from West Ishpeming, who spent four months studying in Hyderabad, India, says the experience forced her to become “malleable.” It afforded her an opportunity to sympathize with those who feel misunderstood, and it left her with distinctive lessons applicable to her future career in education. With humanitarian goals at heart, Pennala originally considered joining The Peace Corps after graduation, but while away in India came to realize the widespread diversity and hardship that existed within her own country. Recently accepted into the Teach for America program, the campus R.A. and former Global Medical Brigade volunteer, who rides horses in her free time, is prepared and gung-ho to immerse herself in yet another foreign community and take on every challenge that may come her way.
When first asked to describe her time in India, Pennala feels apprehensive about where to begin, alluding to the fact that she may or may not have been asked this question one too many times.
“Going to India was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Pennala said.
During the Fall of her sophomore year, Pennala had her study abroad plans narrowed down to three countries: Turkey, Thailand and India—all of which her parents initially renounced. Pennala laughed during our interview recalling her Irish mother asking more than once, “Are you sure you don’t want to go to Ireland?” But after talking with family and friends, she had her mind made up about studying in Hyderabad and there was no stopping her.
When Pennala began to describe her experience in India, it was obvious that articulating the emotions, thoughts and memories took a toll on her; she herself admitted that this inability to adequately express them aggravated the hell out of her. Yet this frustration was neutralized with an inherent love and appreciation for all that she had seen and felt, her hands resting, one on top of the other, over her heart as she spoke.
“India is like nothing I can explain, it is nothing that I can carry around with me, it is nothing that I can dissect, understand and then take away a clear message— it is a feeling,” Pennala said.
She described India as being in another world, a contrast in culture that is “in-your-face,” and an intense experience that forced her out of her element.
“A lesson that I find myself explaining to people now that I’m home is this idea of learning how to interact with and thrive in an environment that’s not your own without trying to understand and control it,” Pennala said. “It was learning how to keep my cool and react in ways that were beneficial for my situation.”
Pennala recalled facing tough difficulties such as gender inequality and overcoming American stereotypes. She found it difficult to make friends with men without being taken for “suggestive” and difficult to make friends with women who didn’t judge her for just that. Both experiences, as well as others, facilitated a “self-check” that offered Pennala an understanding that many of these issues are a product of one’s upbringing.
“[It’s all about not trying to] wear some Americanized veil like, ‘I’m entitled,’” Pennala said. “That’s not my job in life to throw my opinions down on somebody. It’s about forgiveness. [It’s understanding that] you’re that way because your environment is that way.”
These lessons allowed her to gain an open-mindedness and awareness for how one’s background affects the way he or she thinks and reacts. It was difficulty that proved to be advantageous for her.
“I kind of feel like I can do everything now, I feel super empowered,” Pennala said.
Pennala, an English and psychology double major, was inspired by many Albion professors to pursue her passion in writing and her enthusiasm to teach English. While she originally thought about applying to the Peace Corps or getting her Masters degree after graduation, she had a change of heart after her experience in India and decided to consider the needs prevalent in her own country first.
“Why not start here?” Pennala asked out loud in our interview.
It was when she returned from India that she took a closer look at the Teach for America program and decided this was the right path for her.
“All of the things I wanted out of a next job—this had,” Pennala said. “Making an impact, working with kids, working in a community that I’m not familiar with and then learning about a community that I’m not familiar with.”
Pennala couldn’t say enough about the supportive and positive community that Teach for America has already welcomed her into.
“Every step of the journey, people are waiting for you with open arms and they’re excited about a cause that I’m excited about,” she said. “And it’s just really nice to be in that sort of environment with really enthusiastic, positive people who are ready to take on a huge challenge and go through really hard days for maybe a really small but significant and awesome difference.”
Pennala believes that if she can understand that the kids she teaches may also feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and misunderstood that she can adjust her own reactions to help them overcome those challenges. She feels that she can understand them on a level similar to the one she experienced herself in India.
“If I can be my best self when I’m vulnerable, that’s going to make me a better person and that’s going to make me a successful Corps member,” she said.
Pennala is enthusiastic about being placed to work on an Indian reservation in South Dakota for her Teach for America assignment. And while she may have dreams about someday living in Brazil or Vancouver or joining the Peace Corps, Teach for America is the only endeavor in Lindsay’s foreseeable future.
“I’m the kind of person that never really knows what I’m going to do,” Pennala said. “It gives me anxiety to have a plan, actually. It’s sort of backwards.”
The way Pennala sees it, change is beneficial, and there is always something to be gained from it. She believes that leaving home to travel somewhere just because you feel called to do so is a good enough reason to do it.
While in India, she swam in the Ganges river, backpacked through Northern India where monkeys and elephants roam as freely as humans and participated in a 12-day meditation in Thailand, but Pennala’s memories are far more valuable than stories or photographs. They cannot be weighed intrinsically. They culminate into an overall “feeling,” a warmth in her heart and a wide range in perspective and appreciation that she will apply to her future, whatever that may be.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Pennala