Cultural Awareness Club hosts “An Immigrant Story”, featuring Indian American immigrant Pal Shah ‘22
Four years ago, a young girl moved to a new world. Her heart raced as she stepped off the plane and into a new and scary life, completely different from the one she’d known. Her eyes widened as strangers spoke to her in an unfamiliar language, offered her strange food, and demanded she fit into their expectations for how she should dress, act, and speak. What she was allowed to do. Who she was allowed to be. At thirteen years old, Pal Shah had never felt so alone.
On Wednesday, Cultural Awareness Club hosted its monthly “An Immigrant Story,” an event providing a platform for American immigrants in the Conant community to share their experiences. Through this student-founded platform, which highlights a different immigrant experience every month, Shah, ‘22, was given a platform to share her story. During the event, Shah shared her experiences in immigrating to Elk Grove Village, Illinois from Baroda, Gujarat, India, explaining her triumphs, tribulations, and everything in between.
Cultural Awareness Club has been running the event for two years, with attendance peaking at nearly 90 viewers during its first meeting of the 2021-2022 school year. The event has featured speakers from Honduras, Turkey, and most recently, India.
During the event, Shah spoke about her life before moving to America. “I spent time with my family, especially with my dad,” Shah said. “There was a lot of stuff he supported me in. In India there is usually a difference in how guys and girls are treated, but in my family it was different. He treated me like I was a princess.”
Shah’s biological father passed away when she was eleven, which prompted her family’s move to the United States. “My [step] dad has lived here for the last ten years with my step siblings,” Shah said. “My [biological] dad’s family and my mom’s family encouraged my mom to get married again to support me and my [future] career. So she got married again, to my [step] dad who lives here in America.”
Hoping to start her own company one day, Shah’s business aspirations would have been difficult to pursue in India. “There weren’t many [opportunities] in India to pursue that,” Shah said. “When I came to America, I volunteered and learned a lot. My dream is to open my own business named Harvi’s because it’s my [biological] dad’s and my grandpa’s name.”
Communication was a large barrier Shah had to overcome upon moving to the United States, a common struggle felt by American immigrants. “Trying to get a basic understanding of things like spellings, sports, and pronunciation was hard,” Shah said. “My step dad… wanted me out of the ESL classes. I was bullied and very worried about what my family friends would think of me being in ESL classes and whether I would fit into the culture and atmosphere and stuff.”
ESL, or English as a Second Language, classes are offered to over 500 District 211 students who speak more than 40 different languages. These courses are commonly used to help new immigrants learn English in conjunction with their native language, like Shah, but can sometimes come with harmful stereotypes from teachers, peers, and even family members.
Aagii Nasanjargal ‘22, co-founder of “An Immigrant Story” and an immigrant herself, related to Shah’s experience. “For me, since I didn’t know English, I was always the underdog. I was never the one who got noticed,” she said. “Immigrant Stories is one of the safest places for immigrants to just share their stories because it’s such a personal thing.”
Jaahnvi Patel ‘22, co-founder of “An Immigrant Story”, explained the importance she sees in the cause. “I think it’s really important to get an immigrant’s perspective… to have students come here and learn about their experiences is so important,” she said. “To [help them] understand that these people weren’t born here, they weren’t raised here, they just came here and were exposed to a whole new world that they needed to assimilate into… and I think it’s important for teachers to understand what they’re going through in order to help them in their best learning and growing as we go through high school.”
Hoping to continue the cause past graduation, Nasanjargal and Patel have underclassmen shadowing their roles to take the torch once the class of ‘22 graduates. Bella Marcano, ‘25, currently shadows Nasanjargal and explained why she hopes to continue the organization’s message.
“I have always [wanted] to help people, and when I heard about immigrant stories, I thought well, I’ll help people. I will listen to people who [have] been bullied,” Marcano said. “It’s not easy being an immigrant from another country, and it’s difficult and it’s cool to share their stories.”
“What I’m most glad about [immigrating to America] was the opportunity to make new friends, but also stay connected to my roots and culture despite moving on and learning and growing,” Shah said. “I participated in sports, clubs, and work here; and now I’ve learned so many new things.”