When Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal was in his last year of undergraduate study at the Indian Institute of Technology Indore, an unexpected experience compelled him to look at himself and his future with new eyes. It began, as many such experiences do, with a chance occurence : the twenty-one-year-old Computer Science and Engineering major happened to be touring a new library building on campus when a shipment of books arrived.
“Out of the blue,” Ranjodh remembers, “I chose one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was some sort of magic. I fell in love.” He finished the book in one reading, sitting cross-legged in the library corridor. “Once I closed the cover, I let out a cry.” The noise brought the Director of the Institute running to ask Ranjodh what had happened. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but whatever it is, it is brilliant, and something that I never expected would happen.’”
Inspired and transformed by what he had read, Ranjodh suddenly faced a difficult decision: should he stay on course, or veer off into new waters? He realized that what he needed most was an opportunity to test and explore his newfound love for literature, and to investigate whether a different career might be possible. Coming to the University of Chicago Graduate Student-at-Large program provided that opportunity. As he recounts, the program “essentially gave me the tools to change my life.” He is now a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of California, Davis.
“I’ve always been incredibly ambitious,” Ranjodh explains. Raised in a small village in the State of Punjab, Ranjodh was a strong student, excelling in multiple subjects in high school. He was an avid reader, constantly exceeding his quota of books at the local library. Applying to a campus of the prestigious IIT system seemed a natural next step.“Computer science is so valued back home in the society,” he explains. “The whole nation has good institutes for technology training, but we don’t yet have anything similar for the law, fine arts, or the social sciences. So one of the things you think at age eighteen, with the magnitude of young ambition, is ‘OK, I want to be the next Bill Gates.’” Early in his undergraduate career, Ranjodh remembers “the seed was sown in my mind that I might not make computer science my living, but because admission to an IIT is something most people would give an arm and leg for, I did not have enough courage to throw it away.”
After his discovery in the library, Ranjodh looked for ways to study literature alongside engineering, but IIT offered few options. When he found himself writing a computer program to statistically analyze the contents of Garcia Marquez’s novels, he knew it was time to take steps in a new direction.
“That’s why I came to the University of Chicago,” Ranjodh says. “The thing I decided was, if I do want to study something new, it has got to be at a brilliant place. I’d always gone by the principle that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” At this pivotal moment, Ranjodh recalls, “I didn’t want to be in the wrong room.”
September 2013 found him en route to the United States, launched on his first trip outside his country. He arrived at the University of Chicago campus determined “to make use of all the knowledge available to me,” he remembers. “From there on, came my evolution in all different directions.”
As a Graduate Student-at-Large, Ranjodh worked one-on-one with a designated Graham School academic advisor. She helped him to plan a course of study, offered him advice on classes, connected him with faculty, and steered him to activities of interest.
While giving him the keys he needed to open the different doors of university life, Ranjodh’s GSAL adviser also provided support and reassurance as he adapted to his first experience living abroad. “The food here was new. The weather was crazy,” he recalls. “I had just seen snow once in India.” Social customs were unfamiliar; even the rules for crossing the street seemed strange.
“My GSAL advisor was incredible,” Ranjodh remembers. “She devoted herself to making sure I had the best experience. She basically guided me through every interaction, and was the mentor I had away from home, the one I could talk to about everything. She was my foremost guide here until I got to know my professors better.”
Of all the changes he faced upon arrival, Ranjodh recalls, “the biggest for me was the fact I was changing fields.” To make the leap from computer science and engineering to English literature, he had to acquire an entirely new set of skills. But this was a challenge he relished. The day of his first class in the English Department, Ranjodh says, “I knew I was in absolutely the right room. Why? Suddenly, everyone around me was bright, brilliant and knew their stuff. I knew I had to up my game.”
He made remarkable progress with the help of three faculty members in the English Department, Professors Francis Ferguson, Patrick Jagoda and William Veeder. The courses they offered—Literary Theory, New Media Studies, and 19th-Century British and American Gothic Literature—were Ranjodh’s first introduction to the field.
From the start, he loved not only what he was learning, but how he was being taught. “Everyone, everywhere, was asking me to think, to interpret, to figure things out for myself,” he explains. “This was a far cry from the applicative nature of what I was used to.” The culture of critical thinking unique to the University of Chicago, Ranjodh says, “opened a new world for me,” inspiring him to question and re-evaluate “so many things I have always taken for granted, such as how to think, how to read, how to write.”
Working with Professors Ferguson, Jagoda and Veeder was “a life-changing experience,” Ranjodh reports. Their openness, encouragement and enthusiasm were crucial to his mastering the discipline. From the outset, his teachers were aware that studying literature was “an exploratory thing for me,” Ranjodh explains. “At each point in time, as I improved, I asked them, is this good enough for graduate school? Is this good enough for a PhD program? Everyone was optimistic about me personally. All of them sat down with me, advised me.”
Under their influence, his confidence steadily grew. “There was one moment,” he recalls, “when I read the comments of Professor Veeder on my paper, and his ending words were, ‘I am proud of you.’ That is when I said, ‘OK. Yes, I think this is working!’
Building relationships with faculty mentors was a central part of Ranjodh’s GSAL experience. His English Department professors championed his abilities and actively supported his ambition to pursue a PhD. When Ranjodh applied to graduate programs, they offered letters of recommendation and thoughtful advice.
It was Patrick Jagoda who introduced Ranjodh to the emerging area of interdisciplinary research known as Digital Humanities, one of the subjects Ranjodh now works on as a PhD student. . “Professor Jagoda held my hand and walked me through, as if I were a kid and he were the parent, into my professional career,” Ranjodh remembers. “Right from the day when I first entered his class, definitely the least experienced student of the forty sitting in front of him, to the day he suggested I apply to graduate school, he has taken me through the whole journey.”
Looking back, Ranjodh says, “my changing as a person started when I read Marquez.” In the GSAL program, he met the people and seized the opportunities that enabled him to transform professionally and personally.
“GSAL gave me the platform, and all the tools, to do it. This was something I could not have done anywhere else,” he explains. “The intellectual milieu, the teaching, the academic heavyweights whom I could have one-on-one time with, the culture of critical thinking—all of this was incredibly enriching for me. ”
Speaking from the English Department at the University of California, Davis, Ranjodh sees his time at the Graham School as the turning point that initiated, he says, “practically my whole career.”
“One of the things I’ve learned is there are not many ceilings to conquer after the University of Chicago,” he says. “You have pretty much hit on the best in the world. And I think that is one thing I would try to stress to anyone considering a similar step. My philosophy is, as I’ve said before, if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. I would ask them to move up a room, and that is where the University of Chicago comes in. There are few better rooms than that.”