June 09, 2022
Changing Expectations: One Story at a Time
CMU alumna leans on her life experiences to break stereotypes through words
By Tina Tuminella
As a curious, basketball-playing, Indian girl growing up in West Virginia, Neema Avashia is intimately familiar with the concept of paradox.
Self-described as an “activist, writer, reader, thinker and caregiver,” Neema challenges traditional notions of what it means to be from Appalachia by telling personal stories.
“I want people to know that there are immigrants in Appalachia,” says Neema, a 2001 Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science graduate with degrees in professional writing and anthropology and history. “There were really lovely and beautiful parts of that experience, and there were really hard parts, and both of those things can be true.”
Neema is a published author and transformational educator. Since 2002, she has been a teacher in the Boston Public Schools in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she teaches ethnic studies.
As a queer and South Asian teacher and writer, she’s all too aware of Appalachian stereotypes — few of which she fits. So in her new book “Another Appalachia,” she encourages readers to experience more complex and varied versions of this storied United States mountain region beyond what they often see in mainstream media.
Her book examines the roots and resonance of her identity, and her essays include salient memories of what life was like as an Indian girl in a state where the Indian population is less than 1%.
She found a sense of place and belonging at CMU — and those themes have become important in her writing.
“My time at CMU wasn’t just about a classroom education,” Neema says. “I felt like I learned how to be a denizen of the city. A lot of folks stayed on campus, and that wasn't me. I would explore, getting on the bus on the weekend and going down to the Strip District’s grocery stores. I’d buy stuff and cook meals for my roommate illegally in the dorms.”
“I grew to love and appreciate being in a place with tons of diversity, which existed on campus and in the public schools. After that, I didn't want to go back to being in a place where I felt really isolated."
Not the Only One
Neema found Carnegie Mellon to be a balm for the isolation she felt growing up. She credits the class Tutoring for Community Outreach with Teaching Professor of Hispanic Studies Susan Polansky in the Department of Modern Languages with integrating her into a second diverse community.
Through her outreach work in Pittsburgh Public Schools, she regularly volunteered and got to know both young people and the community.
“I grew to love and appreciate being in a place with tons of diversity, which existed on campus and in the public schools,” Neema says. “After that, I didn't want to go back to being in a place where I felt really isolated. I learned that, ‘Oh, it doesn't have to be this way.’ There are places where I'm not going to be the only one and places where I can walk into a room and see as many brown people as white people. Those moments were a revelation.”
Another pair of classes helped to shape her future career paths.
A literary journalism class with Professor of English Jane McCafferty and a history of education policy class with Daniel P. Resnick, who is now a professor emeritus.
"I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to work in education, and I want to tell stories.’ Maybe those stories are about education or maybe not, but this is the realm where I want to be."
She was especially struck with how much time Professor McCafferty spent on her work.
“Every time I gave her a draft — and I gave her over 20 drafts — she gave it back with feedback every single time, which goes way above and beyond what's expected of an educator,” Neema says. “I am 100% influenced by these mentors. I wouldn't be the teacher who I am without those teachers.”
“I’ve come to realize that my identity — a person who's queer and brown and Appalachian — that I'm not alone in that identity. When I was younger, I thought I was alone. But now I see there’s a lot more of us, as well as people who can resonate with different parts of my story.”
Writing as Unpacking
Neema wrote for a teen newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia, but she never wrote about herself.
When she did start writing about her own identity, she became inspired.
“Trying to be honest about who I am and how I play a role in my stories feels really important to me,” Neema says. “People don't like it when you write about certain topics. Especially culturally, it is not common practice for an Indian woman to write nonfiction that talks about family and history and gender and race and sexuality. It's not really approved of or looked well upon. You're not supposed to share things like that. You're supposed to keep your life to yourself.”
Neema’s writing is intertwined with her life as an educator, and she communicates her life lessons to current students to help them navigate their own adolescence.
“I’ve come to realize that my identity — a person who's queer and brown and Appalachian — that I'm not alone in that identity,” Neema explains. “When I was younger, I thought I was alone. But now I see there’s a lot more of us, as well as people who can resonate with different parts of my story.”
The roles of “activist, writer, reader, thinker, and caregiver” coalesce in Neema’s world view.
“Together, we build our own visibility, our own communities and our own sense of understanding of what it means to be us in the world. There are ways, when I tell a story, I can sometimes open a window for somebody else.”