Sugandh and Surabhi Gupta, '16

December 7, 2015
A change in major opens a world of possibilities

Sugandh and Surabhi Gupta, both ’16, have never feared a challenge. The twin sisters from Mumbai, India, are both classical civilization majors — but only after a big change two years into their time at Richmond.

They came to Richmond determined to major in finance, and spent two years immersing themselves in business classes, even going so far as to ignore their advisors’ advice to branch out. However, as they finished the second semester of their sophomore year, both sisters longed for more.

At the same time, Sugandh was taking Linda Hobgood’s theory and pedagogy course, preparing to become a speech consultant. “That was the first time I was exposed to ancient rhetoric and philosophy. All I had studied in India, and after coming here, was economics, accounting, math, statistics,” she said. Sugandh found herself sharing and discussing her assignments with her sister.

“We realized we wanted to pursue languages and to travel more. But that would only be possible if we took a more flexible major that allowed us to try other things,” Sugandh said. “We both realized, in our heart of hearts, that this was our calling.” The two soon began making plans to change their major to classical civilization.

In some ways, the transition was a natural one; the sisters came to Richmond already speaking Hindi, English, and French. They have since added the challenging languages of Latin, Russian, and Chinese to their repertoire. “Languages are challenging to learn; you’re expected to memorize systems and rules that are uncommon to your native language,” Sugandh said. “It teaches you to be patient and precise.”

Though they describe the decision to divert from their business path as nothing short of traumatic, given that they had devoted so much of their schooling in preparation to enter the business world, they have found their new major to be a much better fit. “The idea that a major that not only encompassed what we already loved but that gave us other areas that we could fall in love with was exciting to us,” Surabhi said.

“Classics is analytical in many senses; it teaches people to think more critically about arguments, rather than just learn concepts and be expected to solve problems based on them,” Sugandh said. “I don’t think that’s how problems are in real life, they’re dynamic and unpredictable.”

Their change in major also opened up a world of possibilities to study abroad. The sisters spent the spring semester of their junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, intensely immersing themselves in learning Latin, since their major switch had left them a bit behind. “We had a lot of exposure to classical texts very quickly, which was great,” Sugandh said.

As summer approached, they looked for an intensive experience to hone their Russian language skills. While Russia would have been an obvious destination, the sisters selected a program in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where they stayed with a host family, took language classes for five hours a day, and volunteered in the local community.

In addition to the challenge of learning a new language, staying with their host family required them to keep an open mind and adapt. “We are Hindus, and we stayed with a Muslim family,” Surabhi said. “Living with a family whose culture and religion is the exact opposite of what we were raised to believe in — at certain points it was hard.” But the family worked to make sure the sisters were happy and comfortable, and they left the country with a better understanding of Kyrgyz and Muslim traditions.

In the spirit of true cultural immersion, the sisters also sought out ways to get involved in the local community. They volunteered with SOS Children’s Villages Kyrgyzstan, an international non-profit that provides a stable living environment for abandoned and orphaned children. “We were helping children ages 6 to 16 improve their public speaking and English skills,” Sugandh said. “It was life-changing to be in the classroom, seeing them stare at you with wide eyes, just wanting to learn everything, and be so excited to be there with you.”

They also put their Russian language skills into practice serving as translators for Indian artisans who were selling their work at an international handicraft festival that took place in Bishkek. “Buyers were coming from all over the world and we were helping these artisans endorse traditional Indian artifacts and market them, while translating between Hindi, Russian, and French to negotiate prices back and forth. It was fascinating,” Surabhi said.

Now as seniors, they marvel at the opportunities their time at Richmond and their change of major have provided. “In the first 18 years of our life, we never left India, but over the past three years, we’ve been to 14 countries, volunteering, studying, traveling, and working,” Sugandh said.

And while their path has been challenging at times, the sisters have found it rewarding, especially since they have traveled it together. “The hard work one puts into learning different languages, or doing things that push one outside of one's comfort zone, at the end, reaps the fruits,” Surabhi said. “We’re more confident, we’re comfortable with who we are, and that’s really what matters at the end of the day.”

Photo: Sugandh (left) and Surabhi (right) Gupta in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in summer 2015.