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Inviting New Voices to the Table with Sandhya Jain-Patel

My name is Sandhya Jain-Patel. I have two children, a six-year-old daughter who’s going be seven in February and a 10 year old son who just turned 10 in July. He’s in fifth grade and she’s in first grade. He is my heart and she is my fire.  

Beautiful, Sandhya! So, let’s get started talking a little bit about you. 

If you could kind of think back to when you were in elementary school, who were you, how did your teachers see you? How did you view doing new hard things?  

That’s really interesting. Most of my grade school career especially, I was the only person of color, certainly the only Indian woman or Indian girl in my classes. I distinctly remember there being maybe one or two other Black people and that was really it. 

I grew up first in South Carolina for up until third grade and then I was in New Jersey in Marlborough for the rest of my grade school career. I was always in predominantly white neighborhoods, and I think the perception of the model minority was very strong at that time because we’re talking late 70’s through the 80’s. The immigrant population, especially Indians, had just started coming in the 70’s. They had this reputation for working hard and trying to be white adjacent and jump into all the hoops that were set up by the existing structures. So, I think there was a perception or an affiliation towards the fact that I would do well. And then, of course, I had immigrant parents.

My father is an electrical engineer. I grew up doing the entire coming years worth of math and science in the summer is leading up to the school year. At the end of the school year, we had this McMillan book warehouse in South Carolina near us and we would go there at the end of every year and get all the textbooks for the following year. Then, my dad would spend the whole summer teaching me the math or English content. He, especially because English was not his first language, was very keen on me mastering it to an incredible degree. And then, the math obviously because he’s an engineer and you know, that was like, how could my daughter not be good at math? So, it was me and my sister, two girls. 

I never once had the perception from my father that I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl. I never grew up with this idea that boys were smarter and girls were stupid or any of that. I was actually puzzled by encountering that kind of gender preference in school. I never really understood why that was happening, but I was sort of like whatever..I’m smart enough it doesn’t matter. I was definitely a pleaser. I wanted to please my parents, I wanted to please my teachers. Part of that’s obviously ingrained with this model minority myth of succeeding in a different country. It’s also from culture. I did my best to make everybody happy. 

How did that impact you –  doing your best to make everybody happy? For example, if you encountered something that did feel tricky or hard in school?

It was very demoralizing to me because my father had gone through everything in the summer. So, when I hit it in school it wasn’t the first time I was doing it, so it was a little bit easier to learn it already. However, if I really wasn’t getting it I thought there was something wrong with me because this is the second time I’m learning it or you know, like why is this so hard?It shouldn’t be hard. So, on one hand, it didn’t prepare me for working through adverse or adversarial situations in school because everything was supposed to come easy. But on the other hand, when I did encounter it, it made me doubt my own abilities, my own intelligence. That being said, if I did have a problem with something, I knew I could go to my dad and ask him and he would look at the textbook and study what I was having a problem with, about half an hour later. So, he was actually really good with that. 

That’s great. So, how does that translate to you now in the world as an adult? Do you still feel if something is hard, it’s like “what’s wrong with me?” sort of question? How did you work through it, if not? 

It took a long time to get to the point where I am now. Early in my career, I would feel very ashamed for not knowing something and sort of like, what’s wrong with me? That feeling stuck. It took me a long time to understand that everybody feels that way, and that it’s an opportunity for collaboration and for growth. Admitting that you don’t know something is actually not a weakness, but actually a way to invite other people into the process and to learn from other people. 

Learning doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavour. I think at least when I was growing up, school was very much like that. I think now there’s an emphasis more on collaborative learning and on group learning, which is really great because it’s sort of goes along with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) principles that I’ve been really leaned hard into, which is that the more diverse people are sitting at the table, and the more thoughts you have in a variety of different kinds of backgrounds, the more interesting and creative your solutions will be. The solution that you arrive at ultimately will be better for those different thought processes or those different thought inputs. So I know that now, but it took a long time to get there.

Tell me about your kids. We could talk about both of them or just one. How do you feel like they’re perceived in school, and is that similar or different to how you were perceived?

So, my children both go to a school where they are not the only non-white person in the school or in their classroom. So that’s really helpful because they have kids from across Europe and Asia. They’re not an international school, but they just happen to be in a school that’s very diverse, which is one of the beauties of living in New York City. 

My husband was kind of brought up the same way I was. You know, you bring home the 98 to your parents and they’re like, “what happened to the other 2%?”  My husband and I made a pact early on that we were not going to be those parents, and that we were just going to reward their effort. You know, did you do your best? Were you kind to somebody today? That’s what we expect from you, and so that’s really allowed their own learning styles to blossom. 

My children are very different. My son cannot stand having anything hanging over his head in terms of homework. He can’t stand not knowing things, whether it’s math or science, or when he’s writing something, he will do 10 times what other kids do. He just has to do it that way. So he’s a bit of a nerd, they both are. Apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. We’re very proud of him because he really puts his whole effort into it, and he wants to know things, and he wants to learn things that  need more research, and that’s great. I mean, at some point, he may burn out on that and decide he wants to do something different. Or, he may come across subjects where he wants to put in minimum effort and that’s fine.

With my daughter, she’s a little more of a traditional kid where she’s kind of  like, “ahh homework again?!” But at the same time, because she’s in school consistently now every day, her literacy has exploded. But, some of her homework she really loves. She likes being a word sleuth. She likes making those words her own, and then finding them in books and reading them. “Oh, I read this word today” and you know, “I learned this word this week.”

I think us being able to shed the way that we were taught to learn as the only way to learn has been helpful. Like I said previously, once you feel comfortable making material your own, you can then teach or share with other people. That’s when you get the confidence and that’s when it really feels like you know something. Right? So in the end, that’s what we’re really striving for – making sure that they have the confidence that they’ve learned something. 

How does that come out at home? It sounds like, you’re used to working with your dad on these problem sets, and there’s a similarity there with you working with your kids. The style may be different, but the parent/child approach of “I’m going to support you and your learning,” sounds like it’s the same. How do you feel when you’re working with them? 

It’s interesting. I don’t want to do it, especially after the last couple of years of the pandemic. I’m like, “nope, I’m not the teacher. Not my job. Don’t want to do it.” So, maybe that’s colored me a little bit, but I also think the school is very good about how much parental involvement they want. For example, my son, is learning fractions right now. The teacher has specifically said [to the parents],”you are not to teach algebra, this is not the way they’re learning it. I know you want to teach him algebra, but that is not what we’re learning right now. We have a very specific way.”

And again, I’m very fortunate that my children want to learn this and make it their own material so they might ask me a question. Yesterday, my son was like, “what is four divided by four fifths? You know like four over four fifths right?”  I’m talking it through with him, and then he’s writing it down and figuring it out like, “oh you have to flip the second fraction and then multiply.” So, at this point I feel like I can give them a starter hint, and then we meet. Like I said, sometimes I tell them the wrong thing and they’re like,”Mom, that’s not it, you don’t know.” And I’m like, “it’s okay. You know, not knowing the answer means that you have a question to ask and to learn from the next time.” So, it’s fine. 

I love how you’re phrasing that. 

I try. You know, we want to support him. 

Great, anything else that you want to tell me about either them or you encountering something hard and getting through it? 

That’s really what we’re talking about learning, going from not knowing how to do something to then knowing how to do it. 

Yeah. There are those times, especially for my daughter because she’s younger and so she’s trying to live up to her brother and he’s three and a half years older so he’s got a different way of being able to accomplish things. There are tears. There is frustration and I try to just take those big feelings and to be there for them and echo what they’re feeling: “That must be really frustrating. That must be really hard. You must be very upset with yourself. We’re not upset with you.”

I feel like I’ve let them know that I hear them and they’ve been able to get that cry out or get that frustration out. Now we work finding a solution. You know, and sometimes, it’s just like, “well, let’s come back to this tomorrow. Or, let’s come back to this next week, or you’re not going to be able to play Magic [the Gathering] and win against your brother every time but that’s okay, because you’re learning and you’ll get there.”

So what we try to do with my daughter. I try to tell her, “oh, your brother didn’t learn this in one day either; it takes practice.” With my son I’m like “you’re in fifth grade, you’ll get there.” It’s not just one and done, but you try it, and then you wait a little bit, wait for your subconscious to work on it and come back to it. 

Yeah, I love the idea of just putting something down and coming back to it.  Give your brain a break, everybody take a breath. 

Yeah. Go do something else. You know, your brain will still work out in the background. Go color, go read, do something completely different, and tomorrow when you look at it, it’ll look different. 

Great, if folks wanna follow along in your writing, where can they find you?

I’m on LinkedIn and Instagram. I have to be on Instagram. I hate it. My Instagram handle is SandhyaNYC and on LinkedIn you can find me under Sandhya Jain Patel.

Sandhya Jain-Patel (she/her) is a passionate DEI and culture specialist, an author, and a parent. As co-founder and Managing Director of SRC Partners, she provides a full range of cultural competency services to the entire life cycle of her clients’ projects. Her book, Beyond Diversity, co-authored by Jennifer Brown and Rohit Bhargava, is a Wall Street Journal bestseller and was named a 2022 “must-read” by Inc. Magazine. Her next book, a new adult sci-fi romance steeped in Indian mythology, will be released in Fall 2022. You can find Sandhya on Instagram and Twitter (@sandhyanyc), or on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandhya-jain-patel). To read her irreverent perspective on a variety of topics, subscribe to her monthly newsletter, Jain of All Trades (https://sandhyajainpatel.substack.com).

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