Former SMU Tower Center alumna, Dr. Rachel Ball-Phillips, is an adjunct lecturer in History and the Director of National Student Fellowships and the President’s Scholars at SMU. She credits SMU and the opportunities awarded through the Center with opening doors that enabled her to pursue her passion for Indian studies.
We spoke with her to learn more about her journey from a small town in Texas, to India, and now professor, writer and scholar at SMU.
You are very passionate about teaching students the history and culture of India. How did this passion ignite?
When I was in the eighth grade, my school took a field trip to a Hare Krishna temple and I was immediately fascinated with the art inside by an artist named, B.G. Sharma. Having grown up in a small town located west of Fort Worth, I had little exposure to other cultures. When we returned from this trip, I wanted to learn as much as I could, and the more I read about India, the more my interest grew.
Why did you decide to attend SMU as an undergrad?
I was very enthusiastic to attend SMU because of their emphasis on global education and because they offered courses on Hindi. I took history and political science classes that focused on India, and it was through the SMU Tower Center that I learned about internships and fellowships that offered opportunities to study abroad.
I was a first-generation college student and didn’t have many resources at the time. Because of my Hindi language skills, I was encouraged to apply for an internship at the State Department to spend the summer at their U.S. Consulate in Mumbai. And, I could not have afforded to go if it wasn’t for the Jack C. & Annette K. Vaughn Foreign Service and International Affairs scholarship.
What was it like to intern at the State Department in Mumbai?
During my time at the State Department, I worked as an intern to the Regional Security Officer. It gave me insight into U.S. national security concerns abroad, and more broadly it introduceed the functioning of the Department of State. One of the most exciting experiences as an intern was the chance to work with an organization called Seeds for Peace that unites teenagers from regions of conflict to encourage peaceful coexistence.
You have said that this experience in Mumbai is what started your journey to becoming a professor. How so?
I would say my cultural capital before spending the summer in Mumbai was low, and this internship gave me insight as to how Americans view South Asia and how people from that region view America. I realized that I wanted to work towards changing some of these misconceptions and began pursuing an academic route with a desire to teach in higher education.
I graduated from SMU with a liberal arts degree with a focus on Indian Studies and then moved to Boston where I received my Ph.D. in South Asia History from Boston College. While at Boston College, I conducted language studies and research through multiple American Institute of Indian Studies language grants, a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, and a Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy Fellowship.
I returned to SMU to teach, and now I direct the National Student Fellowships program and the President’s Scholars where I help students apply for the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright Scholarships. My internship at the US Consulate in Mumbai is still one of my most significant undergraduate experiences. It was a great networking opportunity because I met many interesting people who continue to do very interesting things. I always remind the students to think about fellowship programs or cohort programs as more than just getting money for a trip, it’s about building relationships and a network.
It sounds like you have come full circle, inspiring and mentoring students the same way you were first inspired when attending SMU.
Outside of teaching, one of my favorite things to do is give students who have had little to no exposure to a subject or area, like South Asia, and expose them to new places, new things and conjure the excitement that I feel or I felt many, many years ago when I first was exposed to India. I really see my job as opening up worlds.
Join us in creating stories that providing a lasting impact for students for the next 25 years. Give $25 today!
Dr. Rachel Ball-Phillips, is an adjunct lecturer in History and the Director of National Student Fellowships and the President’s Scholars at SMU. She also serves as the Education Director for the Fulbright Association Dallas Chapter where she is piloting a Fulbright-in-the-Classroom program. Ball-Phillips currently teaches South Asian history courses at SMU that include the Civilization of India, On the Edges of Empire, Human Rights in Modern South Asia, and Bollywood. She received her Ph.D. in South Asian History from Boston College in 2015, and conducted language study and research through multiple American Institute of Indian Studies language grants, a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, and a Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy Fellowship. Ball-Phillips is currently completing her manuscript on regional Marathi cinema titled Shaping the Marathi Imagination: Film and Regionalism in Western India, and has started preliminary work on her next project (a joint documentary and book project) titled Hare Krishnas in Longhorn Country: An Oral History of Devotees in Dallas.