Sneha Saigal ’12
I graduated from Grinnell College with a degree and a new family!
If you’re an international student considering studying at Grinnell, a great way to feel at home quickly is to participate in Friends of International Students (FIS). FIS will pair you with an American host family and introduce you to life in Iowa.
Back in 2008, I waited anxiously for the Friends of International Students (FIS) luncheon for which I had fortunately signed up (muchas gracias, Sakshi Saigal ’10, for introducing me to Grinnell and the FIS program). I was lucky to meet Kevin and Jennifer McAlexander along with their three lovely children, Isaiah, Parker and Ella.
By the time I set foot in Grinnell — halfway across the world from India — I had stayed away from home for about 2 years while attending Kodaikanal International School in India. Compared to constantly-on-the-move Mumbai, Grinnell was a quaint town with a population of ~10,000 people. Undoubtedly, the homesickness kicked in and tormented me only to be coupled with an added fear of the 4 years of college that lay ahead of me.
Yet, out of all the things I had imagined and hoped for, I had never thought I would graduate from Grinnell College not only with a bachelor’s in economics and concentration in global development studies, but also with a family of 5 that I would call my own, for years to come!
Bonding Over Food
My host family and I brewed our relationship from day one until we became a part of each other's lives. In hindsight, it dawns on me that most of our activities involved food (a lot of FOOD!!) — whether it was the famous McAlexander apple crisp that was my go-to-dessert choice for my birthday, Jennifer’s yogurt pretzels that I and my close friends got during exam week and Valentine’s Day, or an Indian meal we’d drive to Iowa City for once in a while!
As a leader of the UNICEF club on campus, I organized a Diwali party as a fundraiser, where I choreographed and performed a few Bollywood songs with my classmates. Later that year I made a trip to India and decided to bring back my “siblings” a set of traditional Indian clothes, keeping in mind the upcoming International Student Organization’s (ISO) Cultural Evening. At the event, I got to represent India with my Iowa family on stage. We walked the ramp together — adorned in kurta pajamas and lehenga cholis! From that year, ISO Cultural Evenings and Diwali became unmissable events for us — and some of the most memorable ones too.
Nostalgia always takes me back to Thanksgiving dinners and Easter egg hunts, listening to Jennifer play the flute at church, attending homecoming parades, watching my siblings’ football matches, sitting on my first corn combine, and celebrating small wins at Peppertree, Chuong Garden, Pagliai’s etc.
Studying off Campus
During the fall semester of my third year, I participated in the Grinnell-in-Washington program . This time I reached an unfamiliar destination knowing I had family not too far away from me —well, halfway across the country. Once again, Kevin and Jennifer delighted me with their visit to Washington, D.C. We went sightseeing, indulged in Georgetown cupcakes, and cooked an Indian meal together in my apartment along with my flat mates.
Grinnell College Commencement 2012
Fast-forward to graduation. I hadn’t thought of such a bittersweet ending to my 4 years at Grinnell as I packed my room full of textbooks, photographs, Post-it notes, winter jackets, scarves, boots, and tons of memories.
My family arrived from India for the ceremony; and, together with my Iowa family, they sat in the audience and cheered on me while I walked on stage to take my degree. It was an emotional rollercoaster like none other . I was heading to India with my birth parents while saying goodbye to my host parents not knowing when I would see them next. Of course I choked up, only to realize both my mothers did as well!
Staying in Contact
A few years later, I was pursuing my master’s at IESE Business School in Spain and planned a trip to the United States to meet my younger sister Ankita in Chicago, where she was a first-year student at School of the Art Institute. My longtime then-boyfriend, Vaibhav (aka VB), was to join us from Savannah, Georgia, where he was completing his master’s in design management from Savannah College of Arts and Design.
What better time to reconnect with the McAlexanders, I thought. Another city to explore, many more memories to make!
I finally got to introduce them to VB, whom they had heard so much about throughout my college years. I was elated to make the two worlds combine, yet again.
“Is he the one?” Jennifer asked.
“I don't know, but I hope so,” I replied.
In July 2018, after 11 years of being together, VB and I got engaged. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my family. One of the first texts that I sent out was “Jennifer!!! I said yes.”
We started to finalize a wedding date (8–9 January, 2020), venue, et cetera, and discussed travel plans for the McAlexanders to attend our big day.
Jennifer emailed me their India trip itinerary. When I saw all five names — Kevin, Jennifer, Isaiah, Parker, and Ella — with confirmed air tickets to India, I choked up.
I looked at VB and said, “WOW! This is actually happening! I cannot believe it!”
Even thinking about that now makes my heart race.
From there began the process of discussing visas, immunizations, passports, packing tips, long-haul travel tips, so on and so forth until I found myself giving the McAlexanders a tour. A tour of my house. The kitchen. My bedroom. The paintings I made. The neighborhood I grew up in. We went for rickshaw rides, ate street food, shopped for Indian clothes at the same store where I’d always bought clothes for my siblings. Life was really completing a BIG round circle.
As the wedding day approached, I was elated, anxious, nervous — but mostly just overwhelmed. Fortunate are those who have their family, friends, loved ones, near and dear ones to celebrate this big milestone. I was blessed and honored to have that and MUCH more with both my families on my side as I embarked to become part of a third family.
We danced. We put mehendi. We ate. We danced some more. We applied haldi. We danced again. We did it all! And these are the memories I will cherish for a lifetime.
The Community That Grinnell Fosters
Grinnell College truly encouraged me to become self-aware and leave my comfort zone, but most importantly, it taught me the strength of love and compassion in this world — a commitment to constantly contribute to the common good.
I witnessed the power of nurturing a sense of community firsthand. I am forever indebted to Grinnell for giving me this wonderful family, but also for showing me the potential of love, which truly goes a long, long way!