Spring 2020 Cover Story: The Strength Behind a Story

Photo by Ben Pietrusinski

With no more than a glance at the current condition of the United States, it is clear that we live in a time unlike any other we have experienced as college-aged adults. It is a time of political unrest — of what seems to be a constant struggle for acceptance and equal opportunity for everyone. While there is no doubt that this country has quite a long way yet to go, it has become easy to overlook how far we have come as a nation. It is easy to overlook the power we possess as individuals of any race, religion, gender-identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity to speak our minds and to speak them freely. It is easy to overlook in a time of such hate, that it is just as equally, if not more so, a time of great and wonderful growth.

This is exactly the unintentional ignorance of our privilege as American students that Penn State freshman, Vrinda Agarwal wants us to recognize. She has lived through her own times of flagrant discrimination, has witnessed friends and peers have to hide themselves from who they are in order to survive and has found strength in herself after living in a culture of well-hidden hypocrisy.

Chasing Opportunity

Vrinda grew up in a small town in India in a joint family home — living with 10 of her family members, including three older siblings. Living in such a busy home her entire childhood, she learned early on the importance of learning to share, compromise and to respect the feelings of the others. She watched her family work hard to build up both their livelihoods and their household as a whole.

“Growing up in a 10 person family is the best thing. The house is never empty, it is not quiet, it is always full of life,” Vrinda says. “I cherish the people I live with and I love — and I learned that from my family.”

Photo by Ben Pietrusinski

With her family having such a big influence on the values and judgment she would grow to possess, she says that education is one key aspect of her life that she was taught to never compromise on. Even being a part of such a large household, she says everyone in the family was treated equally when it came to preparing for the future. That even as the youngest in the family, no one ever treated her like she or her education were not important.

With this inherent drive to further her education and aspirations of her own to attend college away from India and in North America, Vrinda made the decision to attend
a larger, all-female boarding school after moving on from her intermediate studies. She figured that branching out to a more prestigious school in the city would offer her unique opportunities that would help her to make it to a university in the United States.

So in 2015 and in her first year of high school, Vrinda set off to study in a new city, at a new school where she would be living away from home and her family for the first time in her 14 years.

Away From Home

At first, Vrinda’s experience in high school was not unlike many others. She was a dedicated student and quickly found that at her new school she had no trouble making top grades in each of her classes. It was in her 11th year that Vrinda became her class’ vice head girl — a position that while very prestigious, placed her directly in the spotlight.

Entering this new year at the head of her class, it was clear that Vrinda had no trouble when it came to academics. Instead, she found that the real trouble lied in not being able to connect with her classmates.

“I have always been a very bold, opinionated person and not many people liked that,” Vrinda says. “I never really had a bunch of close friends.”

With not many same-age friends to confide in or spend time with, it was this year that Vrinda found herself making close friends with a classmate one year older than her.

“Because she was the head girl and I was the vice head girl, we grew closer just because we had to share a lot of responsibilities and spend a lot of time together,” Vrinda says.

As the two became good friends, it became clear that their classmates and even their professors began to treat them differently. Vrinda says that at first she had no idea what

the cause of this sudden shift in treatment meant, but as time went on it became evident. In a school of all girls, once rumors spread they do not seem to stop — even when those rumors are fueled only by ignorance and inexcusable prejudice.

Photo by Ben Pietrusinski

“In our school, as an all girl school, there were of course a lot of gay students,” Vrinda says. “I began to see the treatment towards them. The deans of the school and the principal were not OK with it. They would harass students saying ‘you should not be this way,’ used to call up their parents, used to suspend them.”

It was hard for her to come to the realization that her classmates harbored such an obvious prejudice against their peers, harder even to discover that her principal, deans and teachers felt the same. However, it was hardest of all to have to internalize that the people who surrounded her used culture to defend their position that being gay was “wrong”.

“They used to say that this [being gay] is not a part of our culture. But it is not a part of ‘culture’ to treat someone like that,” Vrinda says. “They are teaching in school that everyone is equal and we have every right to make the decisions we want, but at the same time they are saying that being gay or lesbian is not OK? I do not know then what Indian culture is if it means not respecting all human beings.”

So, before she knew it, the school that Vrinda had enrolled at to build up her future, began to try to tear her down.

Rumors Spread

It all began with little things. Classmates would talk to her awkwardly. Teachers would call her out of class for the smallest of infractions — like being a few minutes late
— assuming that she was distracted spending time with her friend. Vrinda began to notice as well that while her friend was just as involved in this rumor, she herself took the brunt of the attention.

“Things got really out of hand,” Vrinda says. “Because she [her friend] was a senior and she was always in the good books, they really targeted me.”

Each class’ dorm rooms were split up onto different floors, all with a “floor in charge,” or an RA, to watch over them. However, unlike RAs at a typical American college who are also students, the floors in charge at Vrinda’s school were adults employed as a part of the full-time faculty.

“The ‘floor in charge’ of my senior friend, she did not really like us,” Vrinda says. “She made it a point then to really make our lives miserable.”

Photo by Ben Pietrusinski

This senior floor in charge went around campus telling everyone that she could — students and teachers alike — that Vrinda was gay. This hatred she fueled was used as an excuse to throw out any sense of privacy that Vrinda had — treatment that she says she had seen directed at other students suspected of being gay before her.

“They used to randomly check my belongings in my room. They would literally throw out everything from my closet, all over the floor,” Vrinda says. “I did not really know who did that either — if it was the staff or my own batchmates.”

Journals were read out loud, letters confiscated, holiday cards torn up — it was as if no faculty member wanted their students to have any semblance of a personal life, let alone one that they deemed “wrong.”

Vrinda says she knew everything had gotten too far out of hand when the floor in charge made a report that she and her friend had been sleeping in the same room. Soon after, Vrinda’s dean of academics called her into her office. Here she told Vrinda point blank that she knew what she and her friend were doing and that she wanted it to stop.

“She never really mentioned what she thought I was doing, though, she would only say ‘I know what is going on between you and her,’” Vrinda says. “It never came out of her mouth like ‘you are in a relationship with her.’”

As the dean walked Vrinda out of her office and to class, trying to explain the whole way why Vrinda needed to stay away from her friend, Vrinda says she found herself instead at the school’s infirmary. Here she was told by the dean that she had to stay overnight in the infirmary “to take medication” — a medication that Vrinda had been taking for years with no issues at all. Vrinda knew this was only an excuse to keep her locked up.

“I heard her say to the nurse outside, ‘I want her to stay here for the night — make sure she does not go out and meet her,’” Vrinda says.

The next morning Vrinda was called back to her dean’s office and told the same things: that the blame was on her, that she had to stop, and that if she did not, she would bring a bad name to her school and family.

“I was seventeen, I did not know what to say,” Vrinda says. “Back then in that situation I was so frozen.”

She was told that this relationship she was perpetuating — which was no more than a friendship in the first place — would only get in the way of her friend’s success. On top of this, the dean was convinced that Vrinda only wanted to apply at universities in America because her friend had done so too. She told Vrinda that when the time came, they would not allow her to apply.

Senior Year

As Vrinda’s senior year began she was hoping for a clean slate. As vice head girl the year before, it was an unspoken promise that she would be elected head girl for her last year as every head girl before her had been.

However, when elections for head girl began, it was clear the school had no intentions of cutting down on their hatred. On the day positions were announced, she was demoted from her role as head girl on stage in front of the entire school.

“I walked out of the room and I was very, very broken,” Vrinda says. “I did not know how to face people. It took me almost a month to come out of it, just because of the entire scene.”

After this, Vrinda decided to focus all of her energy on the future. Her principals and deans continued to disrupt her college application process by ignoring her requests for letters of recommendation and cutting back on her time to prepare for her SATs. Though the harassment continued — the room searches and constant monitoring — she pushed through anyway.

Photo by Ben Pietrusinski

By the end of the year she had earned top grades in her class, had been accepted to a few of her top schools in North America and knew that she was finally headed for a fresh start in a place where acceptance would be a given.

“They could see it for themselves,” Vrinda says. “They harassed me in so many ways, but they did not get what they wanted.”

Moving Forward

Leaving such a toxic environment, Vrinda knew she needed a university that valued diversity, where she would not encounter the same type of harassment she had before. When she received her acceptance letter to Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications, she says that she did not have to think twice before accepting the offer.

“I think that when there are very small demographics at a college or university, there is a lot of unintentional racism and prejudices that take place,” Vrinda says. “I saw that Penn State was so welcoming to international students — I felt comfortable and safe and accepted.”

Now at school in the United States, she says that she realizes that what she went through was not something that she should have had to tolerate. She realizes now that looking back there were so many times she wished that she had stood up and acknowledged that what was happening was not OK.

“The U.S. is such an open-minded country when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community and people are very vocal about it; in India it is not that way,” Vrinda says. “People are not proud of it, not because they do not want to be, but because they have been brought up by their schools and their family that it is not right.”

Having endured the treatment that she did as a straight woman, Vrinda says she cannot imagine how much worse the school’s actions have affected her classmates and old friends she knew who were actually gay. She says now she only hopes that people — especially those at her old school — can learn to recognize and accept that behind everyone lies a story that should never be swept aside.

“I just want whoever reads this to know that it is not as simple as they think it is. We can never undermine a person’s story, experiences or fears,” Vrinda says. “We should never say ‘it cannot be that bad,’ because it can be very bad, and you do not realize what an impact it has on a person.” 



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