For upperclassmen, especially seniors like myself, talking to wide-eyed, fresh-faced first-years is a trip down memory lane. In the eyes of a first-year, the College is still bright and new and shiny, and no one can better express this feeling than Ashish Solanki ’19. Solanki had never been to the United States before taking the plunge and moving into the College, but living thousands of miles away from home should be no challenge at all to the first-year if the stories he shared with me are any indicator.
So I hear you’re from India. Where in India are you from?
I’m from New Delhi, but my father’s in the army so every year we kept shifting places. In my 18 years of existence I’ve shifted home 18 times, within India that is.
Is it true you’d never been to the United States before?
So I’ve traveled everywhere within India, but outside India I haven’t really traveled ever if you exclude Nepal. The 28th of August was my first official step into the U.S.
And why Williams?
I would say Williams was destiny. I was thinking about Williams but I was actually more focused on Amherst [chuckles] because Amherst is need-blind for international [students] whereas Williams is need-aware, and I required a portion of financial aid. So I was actually obsessed with Amherst and I ended up applying to both. I got in to both, but Williams just struck out. The moment I got in, I didn’t care about anything else. It was like this was meant to be. It was just perfect. It was like a perfect marriage.
How did you celebrate getting in to the College?
I’m always full of energy, but if I’m alone I’m going to be lazy. Six or seven months back I was really, really fit. But once I got into Williams, I had six, seven months, and I didn’t have school because I was on a gap year. I put on so much weight, which I’m not at all guilty for, and I just kept eating all the crazy Indian food dishes that I miss now because Spice Root is not Indian [food]. Spice Root is Indian for people who haven’t had Indian food. But for Indians, that’s not Indian. I still go there, but that’s not Indian.
What else did you do during your gap year?
There’s a lot of poverty and illiteracy in India, and there are many villages where the primary vocation of the people is farming. A lot of these farmers are in so much debt that they sell their daughters into prostitution. These young girls are brought into cities [and] are injected with drugs. A lot of men, from all different walks of life visit these brothels where they basically have commercial sex with these women. The women sell their bodies for as [little] as $5 a session. When I was in high school, I went ahead with this idea of rehabilitating commercial sex workers, one of the most taboo topics in India. I formed this organization based on this business model that we submitted at a United Nations competition in India, where we came in second all over India and got funding. The idea was basically to make these women have a dignified, sustainable employment structure. They can accept the prostitution life if they want to, or if they feel they’ve been degraded they can do this. We decided to make them skilled, certified beauticians. Beauticians is one of the easiest skills to acquire but one of the most [well-paying] as well. We trained them to become certified beauticians, but if they want to continue with their profession, that’s completely okay with us. We gave them workshops to help them understand These are the risks you should be aware of, these are the ways to protect against those risks, these are the rights that you have. These are illiterate girls so many don’t know their rights – and this is the way you can access those rights. We devised a system where the first set of trained women already serving as beauticians can give the same workshops to the next set of untrained women. We set up four beauty parlors in India to help these women provide these beautician services and they can continue with their work if they want to, but now they have additional income. If a man, for example, offers to pay double to not use protection, they can say no. They have the bargaining power over the men now because they’re economically stronger.
That’s amazing! What’s the organization called?
We called it the Khoobsurat Foundation. It’s a Hindi word that means beautiful. We became a little philosophical and said the foundation aims at making these women feel validated, beautiful on the inside, by having dignified, sustainable vocations, as per their own definitions. While imparting beautician services to other women, they actually feel beautiful on the inside because they’re like, “Yes, I’ve had tough times in my life, but I’ve grown beyond that, and I’ve become independent and I am who I am.” We rehabilitated 200 women, 50 of them became completely skilled beauticians and they’re running full parlors and training the next set of women.
What other crazy stories do you have from your gap year?
I almost died, but it had nothing to do with my work in the brothels. It was 11:30 at night and I was in an auto rickshaw. You will not know what an auto rickshaw is, let me show you a picture. [Googles and shows me photo of a tiny vehicle.] I was going back home and I just had this crazy accident. There were these two drunk guys and they just rammed into the auto. One of them rammed into the auto with his bike. I don’t remember because I was [knocked] unconscious. I’m lying there unconscious, and some stupid people stole my bag, [which] had my laptop, my SAT books. [Laughs.] What will they do with my SAT books? They took away everything, and I had my SAT test coming up eight days later! The day I got my consciousness back, I started prepping for the SAT. It was funny because one of my mom’s friends got me this really amazing Beats studio headphones, the most awesome noise cancellation ones, and when I hit my head I didn’t get hurt because my headphones broke, they shattered, and I didn’t get hurt at all.
What has been the highlight of your time here at the College so far?
I did WOOLF [Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years]. It was amazing. We all really connected, on a really human level. I learned a lot of American words [on WOOLF], like ‘savage.’ I never used that word but now I’m like, “That’s savage!” all thanks to Riley [van den Broek ’19] I learned The Whip – the dance where you do this [mimics lasso] then you do this [mimics slapping] – and I taught them [my fellow WOOLFies] funny Indian moves.
One last question – I heard you have a thing for a specific carbonated beverage?
There are so many soft drinks here, there are so many sodas here. In India you also have a lot of options but I just stuck with Mountain Dew. One of the reasons I gained so much weight was because of Mountain Dew. I had so much Mountain Dew, I mean, I can’t even tell you. So we had these bottles, and I had like [talks to self] five months … I think I had like 4,000 bottles, and I’m not joking, I love Mountain Dew. I don’t like the American version of Mountain Dew, it’s kind of bitter. The Indian version is quite sweet. One bottle had 30 to 40 spoons of sugar. My first time in Wal-Mart, people are buying essentials, they have this list like “Let’s get a mirror, let’s get hangers, let’s get an iron.” I just rushed to the Mountain Dew [aisle], got 10 huge bottles, and just stacked them up and could see everyone judging me. That’s the first thing I bought. Drinking Mountain Dew gives me peace. It helps me with nothing, it just gives me calories in reality, but it’s just my thing. If I’m given all options, I will always choose Mountain Dew.