Stories From Scotland - Special: Aashika Suseendran - A Thirsty Quest for Adventure

Dr. Hamish Thompson Resident Director


March 25, 2021

A Thirsty Quest for Adventure!

Recently, I was reminiscing about my fondest memories supporting students coming to study in Scotland during the last 10 years I have been working as Director of Scotland programs for Arcadia University, The College of Global Studies. One moment that particularly stood out was 9 years ago. After a day on the hills with the students at an activity weekend, we put on a ceilidh for the students.

One of the students, Aashika Suseendran, and Dennis Rewt, (Director for the Center of Sports and Excellence at the University of Edinburgh) sang and played a beautiful rendition of ‘Aye Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. This moment will stay with me forever.  As this memory had so impacted my life, I decided to set up a Zoom call with Aashika to see where she is now, to talk about study abroad and how this shaped her life.

Below is a transcript of the highlights of the interview. You can also watch our conversation more fully in a recording. I have also added a slide show of some of Aashika’s photos of her time in Scotland (including the hill-walk) which she kindly shared with myself - with the beautiful song she sang (that I recorded) at the time - as background.

For Aashika's latest journey where she shares her perspectives on health, harmony, and happiness—both from her background as a musician and as a physical therapist, see here.

You can view the video of Aashika's interview here -  

You can view a slideshow of Aashika's semester and the highland activity weekend with her singing (Dennis on guitar) here - 

Introduction - 

HT: Aashika, could you give an introduction as to where you are now and your journey to how you've got to your current place?

AS: . . . Arcadia was home to me in so many ways. After my four-year academic career studying psychology and music at Arcadia,  I found myself so drawn to such brick and mortar institutions with close academic attention and hands-on experience. This included two study abroad semesters; one in Scotland and then one in England. After these experiences, I found myself applying to go to a new place again, so I did my doctor of physical therapy education at Columbia University in New York. Following the four years in New York, I took on a job in Philadelphia close to home. It was really rewarding to work with younger children and babies in the early intervention pediatric physical therapy realm.

It was only about a year and a half ago that I thought - why not California? I moved out here and started working, which is when the pandemic hit about three months later. I found that it was really integral to be out here and to be doing that work.

. . I had been hired as a pediatric and orthopedic physical therapist, and then as the Coronavirus started to spread and the pandemic was out of control, there just wasn't enough staff to support the hospital need. Several people had families and children out here and it would have been too much of a risk for them to go into the hospital. I just felt it was on me. I felt called to volunteer to be trained to work in the hospital. There were so many people who were in severe need. . . It was not something I had realized I would do at this point in my career but it was very much important and worthwhile. It taught me so much and I think that element of adaptability and I'll get into this a little bit later but

. . . I think that ability to be put in situations that you don't expect, . .  but be able to adapt and learn; that's something that you can't really learn from textbooks and you can't really even learn in the classroom. It's something that you have to find yourself. [It’s being] lost in Paris with your roommates but figuring it out and making the best of the situation. [It’s] working as a team, which then applies later in life when you find yourself in stressful or challenging situations that you didn't sign up for, yet you're still working your way through finding out the solution.


HT: . . . Before this call we were sharing a memory of an activity weekend and a ceilidh that evening where you sang a beautiful song. What were some of the highlights and some of your memories of your study abroad experiences including your study experience in Scotland at the University of Stirling?

Music - 

AS:. .  After all these years, that particular trip [to the Highlands] was very meaningful for me as well, and being able to play that song with Dennis [was wonderful]. I've always had a passion for vocals and acoustic guitar. It came as such an unexpected surprise that Dennis approached me and said he wanted to collaborate on that song. We threw it together in about half an hour and that spontaneity was also what made it so enjoyable. Music has always been something that I could not let go.

Even as I started my career at Arcadia, I knew I wanted to study both psychology and music. If you know a thing or two about the Myers-Briggs’ personality test in psychology, lots of businesses and institutions use it to try to understand people's leadership styles or approaches to life. I am someone who was, and continues to be, very in touch with my feelings, and very in touch with my intuition. I think music brings that out of me and it allows me to have that deeper connection with the world and an appreciation for life. While I love to serve and have my profession in physical therapy, I think that that music is something I can never part with, and it manifests in my approach to my career and life at large.  

[While at Arcadia] I studied music there and was active in choir and collaboration - learning, studying, and performing piano and vocals. I went on to Columbia where I started working as the student choir director and also directed the a capella group from time to time. Five of us also ended up starting our own all-women vocal troupe at Columbia, where we sang for charity event dinners and coffee house performances, so that was an enjoyable experience, as well. That brings me to how I'm trying to keep that element of music alive in my everyday practice, both as a passion and also as a part-time profession. 

I was lucky to have gotten a chance to study music through so many different means even while I studied abroad. In Scotland, Dennis was responsible for really bringing that full circle, because so much of my time in Scotland revolved around studying biology, traveling, exploring, and garnering different life skills, like how to cook, or how to develop my own routines. . .

Theater and the Global Planet - 


AS:. . . I was involved in a theatrical production [while at the University of Stirling] with a couple of friends and fellow students. We were in a play called the Admirable Crichton [by JM Barrie]. I was playing the role of a lady’s maid to one of my good friends who was also studying abroad, Alana Crater. She and I had such a blast just being a part of that theater community. We truly felt like that sort of bridged the gap between us feeling like we were Americans studying abroad and us feeling like we were Scottish deep down. I think having those extracurricular experiences were unmatched. I loved being part of that play with her and with the entire theater group in Scotland...

. . . and there was another club called People and Planet where we would go hill walking much like we did at Loch Tay. We would pick up any litter that was taking away from nature's beauty and we would recycle it . . . would do our part to go to fresh farmer markets. .  and spread the word about how important it was to preserve nature's beautiful resources and lands. I think no place other than Scotland could perhaps be a better inspiration. . . because there's so much greenery and so many lush places that are worth preserving, reminding us of our role in conservation there and actually all over the world. . . 

. . Clubs and societies at Stirling Uni are so wonderful and they make you feel like you actually belong there. I really loved being a part of the [Stirling University Drama Society] as well as being a part of People and Planet . . it was fantastic!. . . It felt like having a more authentic student experience. For sure, things that I would go back and do again in a heartbeat right now!

Arcadia Events - 

AS:. . Another aspect was the Arcadia organized trips.This was our first time studying abroad as a cohort and several of us had that zeal to travel, but we didn't really know where to start, so there were trips and excursions we could take [with Arcadia],  like curling!


HT: I remember that [event]! It was part of our Life of the Mind theme of sport. [We] went up to Stirling. [We also] had a coach and then did the curling. Just a few years ago we re-ran that event. 

AS: I really felt like an Olympian for a little while there!

HT: Did you come to the ceilidh that we did in Edinburgh? 

AS: I did. . . that semester was so much dancing! I remember when my parents and brother visited me towards the close of the semester and they asked me, what should we do? I was like, well, one thing we can't miss is a ceilidh. You have to experience a ceilidh.  It's just such a unique tradition and I've never seen anything like it.Piper

AS: I actually just learned it with Dennis about half an hour before we performed it, so that was a fun challenge. An exciting opportunity to improvise and learn something new. However, I should add that I’m very familiar with Robert Burns. We read several Robert Burns’ poems when I was in high school studying literature. 

HT: Ah! I wondered as it’s written in Scots!. . 

AS:  I attribute that [exposure] entirely to my teachers. I've had incredible humanities and music teachers, and we've studied different pieces in all different languages.  I think, also, living in Scotland for several months, I started to hear so much of that Scottish manner of speaking - the Scottish accent as well as the Scottish aphorisms - the little unique things that make the language spoken by Scots so beautiful . .

The Challenges -

HT: Were there any challenges that you faced kind of studying abroad? How old were you, Aashika, when you came over?

AS:  I was 18. I had just turned 18.

HT:  . . .It's a bold move to study abroad that first or second semester at university.. .Looking back, how do you feel about those challenges?

AS:  Like many 18 year olds, you grow up in your parents’ home your whole life. Perhaps you spend your first semester at college and you have a dining hall. Everything is within your comfort zone. To an extent, Arcadia is also one of those idyllic campus scenarios where you have really close intimate relationships with friends and with professors. But the opposite side of the coin with Arcadia is that while that local experience is so warm and cozy, they then send you studying abroad. They pretty much tell you that [studying abroad] is something you absolutely have to experience. Once you do that, you're completely outside of that insular bubble, whether that is your comfort zone at home or that's your comfort zone on campus. I think that's something that's hopefully relatable to everybody who leaves their home at the age of 17 or 18, or anyone who leaves their campus to try a new internship, or to start a job - for myself, doing it at 18, I was on that thirsty quest for adventure. I was really excited!

I remember crying in my hotel room in Edinburgh, one time, missing my parents and thinking I now needed wi-fi to be able to contact them. That was a new thing, and I was not used to it. I needed to adapt. But that was it, Hamish, I remember that was the only time I really cried. After that, what became more of a challenge was the day-to-day independent living.

HT: Study abroad often gives students who come over [a sense of independence] and they sometimes feel it challenging at the time. But certainly when I've spoken with students who've gone back after a few years, they look back on that with a real sense of pride - even if it's something as simple as cooking a meal or navigating a campus. . .

AS: I have a teacher who said to me. . . problem plus purpose equals challenge. So let's say; for example, I was lost and I didn't know my way around the campus, there was a sense of desire to want to be independent and have that self-efficacy to figure it out, so it didn't feel like a problem. It felt more like an exciting new adventure that I needed to figure out. Lucky for me, usually, I had really great friends to figure it out with which made it all the more enjoyable. . . 

AS: . . Then, I was able to have the confidence to take those adventurous trips like we took together to Loch Tay. . . And to go mountain biking, which was definitely, 100%, the most challenging experience I had in Scotland during my entire time abroad. More so than final exams, more so than learning how to navigate my way through Paris or Brussels. It was definitely that element of finding myself doing a brand new thing, going downhill, at a 60 degree angle.

HT: Did you do the terror run? I remember there was an infamous run that was incredibly steep.

AS: Oh! It was incredibly steep! What a rush that was! I just kept thinking, goodness, if I make it down from here alive, that's gonna be a miracle. It was an amazing experience! Being there taught me that being active was so important to me. I  think that's something that as a physical therapist I continue to hold dear. Things like hiking, hill walking, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking. . . My exposure to several of those activities and being able to do them more frequently was all thanks to being in Scotland. . .

The Influence of Study Abroad - 

HT: That leads me on to my next question. What was the influence of study abroad on your academic, professional and any other aspects of life that you're happy to share?. . 

AS: The top thing I would say, Hamish, is finding that balance between the Sciences and the Arts and being able to recognize that these are both parts of my identity. Part of what I want to give back to the world is this idea that these don't need to be conflicting aspects; we can integrate them together. . . Recently, I've had several patients say to me things like - you're not just a physical therapist, you're a healer; how is it that you're able to do that? I was explaining to them that I just feel connected to them. I feel that oneness and that connection that makes me care for them as much as I would care for my own family members. I think that comes about from seeing that any kind of service profession, [whether that’s] being a teacher, being a director like yourself, or being a social service worker like myself, comes with seeing yourself in others and seeing your profession as an art as well as a science. That was a recurring theme in my college experience and in my study abroad experience. . . I wanted to balance studying for rigorous biology exams with also wanting to participate in theater and music. Being a study abroad student puts you in situations where you have to really balance those and give the appropriate prioritization to each.  That was one big learning lesson: how can I maintain both being in good academic standing and delving deep into these artistic pursuits?. . .

A Global Perspective -

HT: As you say, it's a balance.  You had your classes that you were taking towards your degree/major and your minor, in your case, and then balancing this also with cultural learning.  Do you think a global perspective offered by studying in the UK gave you a different outlook on problems or questions?

AS: Definitely! I always joke around and say that I studied Spanish in Scotland - so now I should be speaking Spanish with a Scottish accent! As you mentioned, [it’s integral] to have that global perspective, to learn about things outside of our norm, so to speak. I think so much of that happened organically through my immersion in Scottish culture, be it ceilidh dancing, the outdoors, the hospitality, the way people interact with one another - in a pub, on the street, or even being in the classroom and learning another language. Thinking back to that experience of language learning, and connecting it back to my career now, where so much of what I do involves some level of medical Spanish. . . [you find that] people feel more connected to you when you can show your eagerness for their culture. So even if you speak the most basic level of Spanish and you're trying to connect with a Spanish-speaking patient, they appreciate it - and the same thing with studying abroad in Scotland. When you are brand new to the country and to the culture, you grow most when you have this eagerness to want to learn and want to participate. . . The Scottish friends and peers that I met were so warm and inclusive. They were so willing to share their culture and their customs with us and we readily absorbed them. As a result, many of us continue to feel very Scottish deep inside.

HT:  [In a time of pandemic, global cooperation is so important - from vaccination programs to other issues of  global health. Study abroad is so important and can perhaps help people to understand the importance of a global perspective and sustain that when students return]

AS: . . Bringing it back full circle about how we really are all here as global citizens. . . Yes, we're Americans or we're Scottish, but the more we travel, the more we bridge that gap. We really start to feel like our differences are surface-level. They are differences that are meant to be appreciated and celebrated, but deep down we really all have so much in common. We need to be helping one another, especially during this time, with the pandemic and the distribution of vaccinations. 

HT: The solutions are global - and it's not just the pandemic.  It's so many problems whether it's climate or other issues - 

AS: . . poverty, inequity, world hunger, global warming. The solutions are always global.  The problems are global - so the solutions are global.

The Role of Arcadia - 

HT: How do you feel Arcadia had a role in all or any of the above?

AS: Certainly, I would not have been able to study abroad had it not been for the exposure that I had at Arcadia. As I alluded to earlier, I am an intuitive and a feelings-oriented person, very in touch with my emotions, but as an ENFJ personality type, this also means I like to have a plan. I thrive when I have a planner, and I like to have things organized. I knew at the age of about 14 or 15 that I wanted to be a doctor of physical therapy and my mind was fixed on that goal. Then along came this flyer in the mail describing study abroad -  something I had never considered. . . And thank God I did. . . There were so many things that Arcadia opened the door to, for me, that I just would not have considered otherwise because it wasn't in my plan.

I value Arcadia specifically for exposing me to the importance of study abroad because The College of Global Studies was saying: we’ll make it fit your academic journey, these are the benefits of it, here are the kinds of experiences people have. Because [study abroad] was such an integral part of the Arcadia culture, it became something that I felt I needed to do and I wanted to do. Had I gone to a university where not so many students studied abroad, I might not have thought that I had the bandwidth to do so, as a person pursuing a health care profession. I didn't know that [studying abroad] was even a possibility for me.  So I'm grateful to Arcadia for encouraging me to realize it was possible. . . Arcadia gave us that empowerment to say - yes, you absolutely can study abroad, no matter what your major is, or what your profession is going to be. . .

Why Should Students Study Abroad!?

HT: . . My very final question, what message would you like to give to students as to why they should study abroad if they get the opportunity?

AS: Spread your wings! When you study abroad, you become so much more whole. Because, as much as you become interdependent - you're meeting new people, relying on new people, helping one another. . . You also become more independent. You learn how to lift yourself up by yourself and manage new circumstances and new situations.  You become so adaptable that when you come back to wherever you started, whatever challenges come your way, you're just that much more on top of them. You know how you can handle things that are unexpected. You know how to make it an enjoyable experience for yourself, as well. Do it for your independence! Do it for your quest for adventure! And, do it for that interconnection that you start to feel with so many people around the world!  It's something that will change who you are for the better.

Melrose Abbey