Q&A with Professor Nandini Bhalla

The new professor transitioned from STEM to communications

Professor Nandini Bhalla is a new member of the faculty in Reid Hall. Photo by Virginia Laurie.

Professor Nandini Bhalla is a new member of the faculty in Reid Hall. Photo by Virginia Laurie.

Virginia Laurie

Dr. Nandini Bhalla, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, is one of the new faces on campus this year. This semester, she is teaching JOUR 227: Public Relations Writing and JOUR 330: Communications Theory & Research Methods.

Q: Could you introduce yourself and give a little bit of your background?

I’m originally from Delhi, India, I grew up there, spent my life there. I got my Bachelor’s there, my Master’s there. I worked in India for almost seven years in media, including journalism, television journalism, and public relations, but I came here in 2015 for my Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. This was a very new experience for me, since no one in my family had ever come to the U.S. to study or live before.

Q: What was that transition like?

I experienced culture shock between Indian and American education systems; here, students have so many choices, decision-making abilities at multiple levels, and are generally very empowered. As a PhD., I myself had to make more decisions and was treated less like a student and more like a peer and future professor.

I also experienced the culture shock of going from being a workaholic with lots of professional connections in India, to starting over in the US and re-immersing myself in study and research, while having less time to focus on taking care of myself.

Q: When did you arrive at W&L?

On June 17th, I finished my PhD. and returned to India to spend a month with my family and celebrate this huge milestone, especially since I’m the first ever doctor in my family and the first to really live in the U.S. After that, I got a job at this prestigious university, and I’m here now.

And I’m just really passionate about my work, I love teaching the students here, they’re amazing. When you work with these kinds of students, it motivates you to do your best, it pushes you to work harder, it pushes you to bring new ideas to the table because they really want to learn, unlike at other universities where I’ve taught where the students weren’t as driven as the ones here.

Q: How did you first become interested in journalism?

Well I have a funny CV, I originally got my Bachelor’s in Chem Honors, but I eventually realized that the STEM field wasn’t for me, and I wanted to pursue Mass Communications, even though 10 years ago, nobody in India knew what that was. It was hard to leave the socially accepted prestige of Chem to go into the humanities and arts, where I am now, but I’m glad I did. It pushed me out of my cocoon and the rough patch I’d been in ever since my father died.

So, I finished my Mass Comm Masters, got a job, continued my education for 7 years, got an MBA degree, and after applying to come here for three-four years without acceptances, finally succeeded in coming to get my Ph.D. in 2015.

Q: What’s the role of student journalism on a campus like Washington and Lee?

It  gives students so many different types of empowerment and teaches them to create and produce their own products and reach out to more people. Even now, interviewing me, you’re learning professional skills. Student media is so, so powerful and working in it gives you a heightened sense of awareness about all parts of university life, as well as enhances your writing skills.

Q: What career advice would you give a student interested in journalism or any type of writing who worries about the field being  “impractical” or “nonviable”?

Well my mantra is “Do what you love.” It doesn’t matter what you do, pick up any damn thing you want to do, but be passionate about it. Success is never about the scope of a career field, it’s about how dedicated you are to it. You should never chase money; chase your passion, and money, fame, success will follow, never the other way around.

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

When I was a Master’s student, my teacher told me to keep a newspaper in my bag every day and read it during my commute, lunch, whenever. The fact that we don’t have a strong reading culture here is bad; we should not let newspapers die. Because no matter how much literature we can consume on our phones, nothing has the sense of life that a newspaper has. Even just picking up a copy of the Ring-tum Phi is so good for you as a writer and person.

I was also told to treat every experience I have as a reporter. So, you should go out, have experiences, and enjoy them, but afterwards, make sure to write them down. I’ve asked my students who’ve studied abroad if they’ve written about their experiences, and when they say no, I say, “Why not?” they’ve already lost so many memories from it: what they were feeling, the highlights, but also the lows.

Q: So do you suggest journaling?

Yes, or writing a blog. No one ever has to see your writings. I myself have an anonymous blog I’ve kept for years now, though I’ve turned to hardcopy journaling during my more intense emotional struggles. Write when the storm is over, so you don’t forget your struggles and how they have changed you, which you won’t realize until much later. Writing is a way to remember learn how resilient and strong you are since we have a habit of dismissing our own feelings and experiences.

Q: Speaking of online vs. hardcopy, how does the influence of technology and social media affect what and how you teach?

Things are changing so you have to stay updated with technology, but 24/7 news bogs you down, and can overwhelm you, so hardcopy can help with that. I’m really not a big tech person, but you have to keep up.

Q: So, do you think print journalism will ever “die”?

No, never. Nothing will ever fully simulate picking up a hard copy of a newspaper and reading it. You don’t want to just consume news, you want to enjoy it too, and that comes from picking up a newspaper, opening it, and reading it. Print journalism may be changing, but it’s not dying.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.