Sonal headshot photo

Sonal Lal, Hindi

Sonal is an alumna of the 2015 NSLI-Y Hindi Program in Pune, India from Portland, Oregon.

At the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, I was introduced to the Japanese concept of ichi-go ichi-e, which emphasizes the importance of cherishing each moment as it is unique and cannot be repeated. As a multilingual person, I understand that translations often fall short of capturing the true essence of foreign concepts, but they can still offer valuable insights. As I reflect on the pivotal moments that led me to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, my mind drifts back to my study abroad experience in Pune, India in 2015. Studying in India was a transformative experience for me, as it forced me to confront and embrace my identity as an Indo-Fijian, first-generation U.S. American.

My stay in Pune not only allowed me to explore my cultural roots but also expanded my horizons by exposing me to new and diverse experiences. I was fortunate to live with a wonderful family of five, and to this day, we remain in touch. I fondly reminisce about our mornings spent indulging in biscuits and sipping on hot chai, while my days were spent attending intensive Hindi classes at the renowned New India School. Weekends were reserved for trekking through the breathtakingly lush mountains and sharing moments of joy with my younger siblings that would leave us all in fits of laughter. However, my six weeks in India seemed to fly by in the blink of an eye.

Sonal in India with her host family in the mountains.

India continues to hold a special place in my heart as my experiences there have greatly impacted and influenced the trajectory of my life. The experiences I had in Pune and beyond only deepened my passion for cultural affairs and motivated me to seek out new avenues for both personal and professional growth. Over the course of my college years, I was fortunate enough to study abroad twice more in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Granada, Spain. I also began leading International Youth Exchange Programs through World Learning, where I had the privilege of working with hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds all over the world. In 2018, I was honored to be invited to help host a reunion for alumni of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq through World Learning and the U.S. Department of State. By 2019, I had changed my major from Biology and graduated with a B.A. in Spanish and International Studies.

After graduating, my passion for international exchange programs led me to continue my work through various agencies such as Global Ties U.S., World Learning, the U.S. Department of State, universities, and nonprofits. These experiences have not only deepened my understanding and appreciation for cultural diversity but have also instilled in me a strong sense of purpose and drive to make a positive impact on the world.

Studying abroad in Pune, India was the foundation for my career goals and inspired me to seek paths that would lead to meaningful and cross-cultural societal change around the world. My desire to increase opportunities globally for others and myself led me to apply for the Payne Fellowship, which offers underrepresented individuals the chance to pursue higher education while contributing positively to humanitarian-based work.

Sonal with her cohort in India showing their henna.

I recite ichi-go ichi-e daily to remind myself of the unique nature of each moment and to appreciate the interconnected stepping stones that have led me to where I am today. I urge others to chase their curiosities, dreams, and wildest imaginations, as these experiences may lay the groundwork for their own unique path to success and happiness.

Looking back, I can see how my time in Pune, India shaped me into the person I am today, committed to public diplomacy, cultural understanding, and global education. It is amazing to realize how one powerful experience, one impactful opportunity, or one successful leap of faith can alter the course of one's life forever.