Though she’s enjoying her job at Google in San Francisco, Emma Leiken hasn’t sworn off South Asian Studies as a possible career sometime down the road. And with a resume like hers, there’s little standing in her way—whether she chooses the technology industry or international affairs, she’s sure to catch the eye of top employers in either field.
Selected as a Fulbright student researcher to India in 2016-17, Emma received a Critical Language Enhancement Award to study Hindi with the AIIS program in Jaipur. After completing four months of immersive language training, she set off for Mumbai to pursue an ethnographic research project on the impacts of B.R. Ambedkar’s mass Buddhist conversion movement of 1956.
No stranger to South Asian cultures, Emma had previously traveled to Maharashtra as a Dalai Lama Fellow, where she co-founded the Chiplun Youth Arts Initiative. A program of the Upjeevika Foundation, the Initiative brings local performing artists into schools to work with low-income students on music, theater, and dance. The program’s mission is to foster critical thinking, leadership, and communication skills.
Last February, Emma began work in Google’s People Operations and Staffing Services. As a member of the Internal Mobility team, she helps arrange for current Google employees to grow their careers and move around within the organization. While she settles in to her new job, Emma’s experiences in India remain close to her heart. AIIS caught up with her to chat about the impact of advanced language training on her career.
AIIS: How did your experience with AIIS Hindi prepare you for your current work?
EL: While I don’t use Hindi in my current job function at Google, studying Hindi at AIIS was a very valuable experience for me. I think language learning is a good learning and mind exercise, and studying Hindi at AIIS definitely allowed me to feel more connected to Indian culture while studying in India during my Fulbright year.
I think there is also definitely a tie between language and thought—I believe that learning a new language gives insight into other cultures and new modes of thinking. For instance, there are studies that discuss that there are words for specific emotions that are culturally-specific.
I studied Hindi at AIIS in Jaipur before I started my Fulbright research in Mumbai in 2016. My knowledge of Hindi was crucial to my fieldwork, as it allowed me to connect with my interviewees on a deeper and more authentic level. So much gets lost in translation, and I felt that it was really important to connect with my interviewees in their own language, without relying solely on a translator. My knowledge of Hindi deepened and enriched every one of the relationships I built during my Fulbright year.
Fortunately, Google has many resources for self-study and learning. Through one of Google’s internal resources, I was able to search for employees who are skilled in Hindi—and who would be willing to teach it. I have Hindi lessons now once a week; each week we discuss a new topic in order to practice conversational Hindi. We’ve discussed politics, religion, work, and family so far.
What are your future professional or academic goals, and how does your experience with AIIS fit into those?
My experience with AIIS has been a really wonderful opportunity to deepen my relationship to Indian culture, history, and religious studies. At some point, I envision myself going back to school to study South Asian Studies or international development with a focus on India and South Asia. My knowledge of Hindi will be an asset in either field.
How do you think immersive language training abroad can benefit a person’s career? Particularly in non-academic fields like tech and business?