Sheila Raghavendran

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Meeting “Serial” creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder are podcast geniuses, and a couple days ago they looked me in the eye.

They have both worked at WBEZ’s This American Life for over a decade and created Serial a few years ago. It was revolutionary — it broke download records and introduced millions of people to audio storytelling.

Koenig and Snyder visited IU on Friday to give a talk about how Serial was created and meet with some podcast junkies (like me!). They told us that Serial was created on accident, after a weaker idea fell through. Koenig had already been reporting on the case of Adnan Syed, which is the story explained in Serial‘s season one. She said she felt drawn to the story, characters and setting, and wanted to keep exploring. She advised the people in the room to “do what you like.” Snyder added that “a good idea can be easy because it’s obvious. The most work can go into saving a weak idea.” These women were inspiring and insightful.

A bunch of podcast lovers with Sarah Koenig (middle).

I am drawn to audio stories because they are more conversational and personal. When listening, I can envision myself in the room with the narrator, experiencing the story as they guide me through it. I’ve wondered if the creativity and innovation in audio storytelling distanced it from journalism or serious reporting — an invalidation. Snyder answered that question: “Artistry is OK in reporting as long as you can stick to the truth.”

I’m so glad to have soaked up some of their wisdom. Listen to Serial and S-Town!

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“Fences” and Radiolab on interpersonal relations

I recently viewed and listened to two works that have me thinking about how to live, interact and relate. I watched the Academy Award-nominated movie Fences directed by Denzel Washington and listened to Radiolab‘s “Lu vs. Soo”.

In Fences, Washington, nominated for Best Actor, played Troy Maxson. Troy was a troubled man who tried to shield his son Cory from a life like his, but in doing so he instilled Cory with fear and created an unreachable distance between them. Rose Maxson, played by Academy Award winner Viola Davis, was a fierce woman. She kept the family together, verifiable by the ending scene, even as it relentlessly pulled apart.

I was captivated by this family, this story. Troy misstepped in many ways, and they came back to him in the end.

In “Lu vs. Soo”, Lulu explains that she approaches everyone with kindness, while Soo challenges others. Soo urges people to do better, be better, while Lulu prefers not to throw any punches. Radiolab ended the episode with Lulu saying that she was proud to know Soo — someone who was unafraid to stand up when she sees something wrong — and Soo admitting that her assertiveness is an insecurity, something that sometimes pushes her away from people.

Both Fences and “Lu vs. Soo” asked about the balance between kindness and assertiveness. They suggested that assertiveness was the key to progressiveness. In both stories, however, exclusive assertiveness dealt a lonely and painful outcome. Perhaps it’s a given that the ideal lifestyle mixes inherent kindness with tasteful questioning, but perfecting that balance is difficult, as these characters (both real and fictional) have proven.

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“Love recognizes no barriers…”

I recently watched the movie Loving directed by Jeff Nichols. The plot surrounds Richard and Mildred Loving, plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriage. In the film, the white man and black woman marry in Washington, D.C. and face legal issues in Caroline County, Virginia, where they reside. They are snatched from their bed, thrown in jail and prohibited from entering the county as a couple for 25 years. As I mentioned, the Supreme Court ruled in the Loving’s favor, but much of the movie concerns the injustices they endured.

The day after I saw Loving, I watched the play The Duchess of Malfi at IU Theater directed by Katie Horwitz. The play told the story of the Duchess who secretly marries a man of lower social status. Their affair is considered wrong, and while this clashing of classes is characteristic of a comedy, The Duchess of Malfi quickly turns tragic. The Duchess and her husband Antonio face grave punishments for their union. The themes of the play, though much darker, resemble those of Loving — two people reprimanded for loving each other because of identity differences.

Seeing both of these productions, especially in succession, was unsettling but emboldening. I find it ironic that love is traditionally celebrated and encouraged, but has often been strictly regulated. The controversial marriages in these productions reminded me of stories in my family’s recent history. The Duchess of Malfi is set in the early 1500s, Loving in the mid-1960s — but the stories are still relevant today. Hearing these stories makes me wonder how and if marriage will be redefined in the years to come.

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Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival

My friend Vicki and I went to the Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival yesterday and watched three shorts and one feature-length film. The film festival is a yearly event that started in Bloomington in 2003 and explores LGBTQ+ issues and themes. Bloomington has a thriving LGBTQ community and we were excited to check out the films for the first time — and were not disappointed.

These films did an astounding job of sharing very personal, intimate stories without adhering to stereotypes or disrespecting the characters. We saw the short films “Nasser” directed by Melissa Martens, “100 Crushes: They” directed by Elisha Lim and “Veracity” directed by Seith Mann and the feature-length film “Real Boy” directed by Shaleece Haas. Vicki and I walked away from the theater realizing something profound: unlike many stories of LGBTQ characters in mainstream popular television and film, none of these queer characters died.

I think it’s unfortunate that queer characters are often portrayed stereotypically or negatively. The good parts of the story are missed, and therefore the depiction isn’t accurate. I am really glad that the directors of these films focused on the people, not the expectations, and think it made for exceptionally honest, real stories.


“We the People”

Today I hosted American Student Radio’s first show of the semester, “We the People”.

I brooded over the theme for a long while, and finally chose “We the People” to tie in with Friday’s presidential inauguration. I wanted to create an outlet to talk about what is next for the people of this country. We crafted the show around the uncertainty that comes with a change of power.

It was a great opportunity to talk about newsworthy topics at a relevant time. I am proud of the show and thankful to my dear friends who produced pieces and worked on the episode. It came together so well thanks to their dedication!

I produced a piece on campus activism in the 1960s and the parallels and differences of today’s youth. Finding the relevance and purpose of the piece was a challenge — I knew that young people were affected, but at times felt that it was too early to tell the story. I soon realized that the story was exactly that: Young people, and all people, don’t know what is next, but things are happening to affect them.

All of the pieces in this episode have to do with that motif. It resulted in an interesting array of stories about people in a state of limbo, just waiting to see what will come next.

Link to the show: 

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NYT Mag’s ‘The Lives They Lived’ & Feeling Good in 2016

2016 has somehow become notorious for “the bad stuff”. International tensions, political uproar, tragic, violent deaths.

It’s some of these deaths that The New York Times Magazine has taken a spin on. In its “The Lives They Lived” issue each year, writers highlight the influence of prominent deceased people, often with unique anecdotes. In 2016’s issue, published December 25, the story that caught my attention particularly was that of Gwen Ifill.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Role models often appear with a thunderclap, a bright flash on a dark horizon, but can feel remote and evaporate just as quickly. Gwen Ifill was different.

In this piece, writer Sara Mosle tells Ifill’s story through her profound impact on two of Mosle’s former journalism students, Sophie Sabin and Isabel Evans. These girls’ journalistic aspirations quickly became tangible thanks in part to Ifill’s strong encouragement.

Sophie had the chance to interview Ifill via Skype in 2014, and she asked Ifill why “this important person, who had this really busy schedule” was taking the time to talk to her. Ifill answered, “Well, Sophie, it’s because I was you.”

Isabel had learned that race, ethnicity and gender were hurdles she had to jump. Her admiration of Ifill began when she noticed that Ifill, despite her own race, ethnicity and gender, had “never been held back”.

Sophie’s and Isabel’s mindsets remind me of my own — starting out timid, but quickly becoming imbued with a drive to ask the hard-hitting questions and tell the important stories, and facing the challenges of being a young, female person of color. Even though I never had a relationship with Ifill akin to those of Sophie and Isabel, I can find my role model in her through the lives she touched.

The editor of the annual “The Lives They Lived” issues, Ilena Silverman, talked on the podcast Still Processing, another product of The Times, about the purpose of the issue: finding humanity.

“Everyone is sort of looking for the deep humanity in their people,” Silverman said, referring to the writers’ goals. On the general audience for this issue, people who are moved and upset about these deaths, she said, “I feel like at its best you’re reading these stories and you’re going deep into people’s lives and deep into particular eras and that you just actually feel good.”

And in a year end that dramatized and dwelled upon the bad, I think it’s valuable to search for that humanity and cause for celebration, and just actually feel good.

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“Fun Home”: a familiar allusion

“The end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.” (pg 117)

The cover of "Fun Home", a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

The cover of “Fun Home”, a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home”, which is now a Tony-award winning musical of the same name, is a precise documentation of her family’s secrets. Whether thick, unanswered or forgotten, they shape the story to be reminiscent of more than just “In Remembrance of Things Past” or “The Odyssey”, two of the many pieces of literature to which Bechdel alludes. The story of the Bechdels, as specific and exclusive as it is made to seem, is an allusion to every family and its own secrets. Continue reading

MacDonald Scholars

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MacDonald Scholarship connects students with community for long-lasting success

Originally posted on IU Communications’ Student Experience blog.

Photo the MacDonalds Scholars dinner, taken on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

Alumnus Scott MacDonald meets with the inaugural MacDonald Scholars during a recent ceremony. Photo by Eric Rudd.

In 1970, IU Bloomington was very different from IU Bloomington today – its population was only 30,368, the building of Assembly Hall wasn’t yet completed and SPEA had yet to be established. But there is one aspect that has remained for some students and families: struggling to pay for college. Continue reading

Bicentennial intern

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Bicentennial intern projects showcase IU history

Originally posted on IU Communications’ Student Experience blog.

One hundred ninety-six.

That’s how many years since IU was founded in 1820, and today’s campus is greatly transformed from that first version. In anticipation of the 200-year anniversary of the university’s founding, interns for the Office of the Bicentennial have been researching IU’s history for projects that will be featured on the IU Bicentennial website. Their projects will be featured at an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, in the Indiana Memorial Union Dogwood Room.

scott jauch

IU Senior Scott Jauch works on his project in the common lounge at the new Media School. Photo by Eric Rudd.

According to Kelly Kish, Director of the Office of the Bicentennial, 2020 will be not only a celebratory year for IU but a moment for reflection.

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Science Fest

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Third annual Science Fest exposes community to science and technology

Originally posted on IU Communications’ blog Science at Work.

On Saturday, Oct. 22, IU was overrun with robots.

These robots — machines such as PARO, the therapeutic robotic seal — were on site for holding and petting as part of the School of Informatics and Computing’s activities at the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ third annual Science Fest. Continue reading

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Jhumpa Lahiri

Click here to listen to a piece I produced for American Student Radio on Jhumpa Lahiri wannabes.


She was wearing a maroon, comfortable shirt, paired with brown pants that sloshed as she walked and an decadent, teal-stoned necklace. She appeared serious, almost disinterested and stoic.

Is she nervous? Bored?

I contemplated as author Jhumpa Lahiri sat poised on the stage of the Whittenberger Auditorium last Monday. She checked her fingernails, adjusted her ring. As Indiana Unviersity Hutton Honors College Dean Andrea Ciccarelli gave an introduction, Lahiri quietly coughed, the first audible breath of her voice caught on microphone.

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Tina Fey’s role in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is the same as always, and that’s a good thing

Photo from This contains spoilers for “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”:

Tina Fey’s role in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is exactly what we’re used to from her — a working, somewhat unhappy adult, rooted in her ways and heavily concerned with her job and impressing her boss. We saw this with “Baby Mama”, where Fey played the careful, collected woman intimidated of chaos; we saw it again with Liz Lemon in “30 Rock”, who was unhealthily committed to work; and we saw some glimpses through her several stints as Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” (“somewhat unhappy”, “concerned with impressing her boss”, you get the point). Fey’s role in “WTF” is no WTF — but it’s the jarring portrayal of women that caught me unexpectedly.

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Memorable memories: afraid at age 4

One of my earliest memories of life is about death.

It’s difficult to gauge what my first memory is because young ages are a blur of emotions and recollections from others. I’ve pieced my early memories into a timeline (with my mom’s help with chronology, thanks mom), and one of those memories is most significant because it introduced me to pain, death and fear.

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Where I’m a Local

People frequently ask me, “Where are you from?” When I reply with the unsatisfactory, “Cincinnati”, they shake their heads and further and ask, “Oh, I mean, where are your parents from?” Reluctantly, I give them the answer they want.

I find it frustrating because it allows others to define me by my ancestry and the preconceived notions that are associated with it.  Taiye Selasi tackled this topic in her recent Ted Talk called “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”

She explained that there is a three-step test in determining where someone is a local: through rituals, relationships and restrictions. Continue reading