Hamilton Lugar School (HLS) alumna Neelam Patel plays a key role in hosting international delegations visiting the state of Indiana. Patel, who graduated from HLS in May 2022 with a B.S. in International Studies and a B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, is now the manager of the International Visitor Leadership Program at the International Center in Indianapolis. In this role, she leads the U.S. State Department-funded program providing international delegations with the opportunity to experience Hoosier culture and shadow their professional counterparts in Indiana. Her work supports the International Center in fostering Indiana’s global objectives, including economic competitiveness.
This career is a natural fit for Patel, who has local roots with an international flavor. She says, “I grew up in Indianapolis, speaking English and Guajarati with my family, watching a lot of Hindi movies, and listening to Hindi music. Then I studied Spanish through late middle school and high school.”
When looking at universities, Patel was drawn to the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School. She says, “I was entranced by the idea of a broad program that had multiple tracks and would force me to take a language – something that I was already considering. I knew this would let me be flexible and explore my options for the future.”
In terms of languages, Patel was intrigued by the Arabic Flagship Program at HLS. She explains, “Before I looked at IU (Indiana University), I had never even heard of a flagship program where you study for four years, then spend a year abroad, immersing yourself in the language.”
In fact, IU is the only university in the U.S. to host three Language Flagship Programs (Arabic, Chinese, and Russian). The U.S. Department of Defense provides funding for only 31 Language Flagship Programs at 21 institutions of higher education. In partnership with 10 overseas centers, these unique programs allow undergraduate students to achieve professional competency in languages deemed critical to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. Students complete the Flagships in just four to five years – overcoming the perception that these languages are too difficult for English-speakers to learn.
Patel says she was optimistic about learning Arabic, “Since I had already studied Spanish, and had a history with Indian languages, I didn’t think it would be too hard to learn another language,” she said.
However, Patel says Arabic was more challenging than she had anticipated. She says, “This was completely new. I was learning a language from scratch – a whole new alphabet, completely different grammatical rules, and sounds that just don’t exist in the English language.”
Despite the unexpected difficulty, Patel says, “The Arabic Flagship ended up being an amazing experience. I was consistently challenged in a healthy way – all the way through senior year, thanks to the outstanding professors.”
As a prime example, Patel describes her all-time favorite professor, Iman Alramadan, senior lecturer of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, and the director of cultural and co-curricular activities in the Arabic Flagship Program. Patel explains, “Professor Alramadan was my very first Arabic teacher, and my very last. I had her at least once a year. First semester, she told us to call her our Syrian mother. She made learning Arabic such a comforting experience.”
Patel continues, “As a first-year student, learning a new language, she made us comfortable with making mistakes and trying new things. And just being away from home for the first time – having that kind of figure in my life was really nice.”
Other faculty members left a strong impression on Patel as well. She says, “I had a number of professors who were just fascinating – insanely smart. They introduced me to new areas of study and had me rethinking my whole career.”
In regard to careers, in her first year at IU, Patel secured an internship with the International Center, in the program she now leads. Patel had grown up in Indiana, but she says that before her first internship, “I wasn’t convinced yet that Indiana was global.”
Patel’s early experiences at the International Center quickly opened her eyes to how she could enjoy a global career without leaving the state. During her internship, Patel collaborated with the U.S. Department of State to organize visits for delegations from various nations coming to Indiana, compiled a database of international sister-city partnerships in the state, and used her Spanish language skills to facilitate cross-cultural meetings between visiting delegations and various governmental entities, businesses, and nonprofits in Indianapolis.
In the five years between starting her internship at the International Center and being hired to lead the same program, Patel honed the skills she would need at HLS through her coursework, the Arabic Flagship program, and three additional professional internships. .
Patel’s second internship was with Hogar de Cristo in Santiago, Chile, where she worked in communications. She says, “We researched ways to prevent and address sexual assault and harassment in the Chilean workplace. I also collaborated with the director of communications on a 10-point plan of action for fostering a safer, more inclusive work environment for employees and volunteers and we presented the plan to three groups of superiors.” Patel says the presentation resulted in getting the proposed plan of action approved to move to the next stage of development.
During her Arabic Flagship program capstone year, Patel had two internships in Morocco, giving her invaluable experience using Arabic in a professional setting.
While interning at the Al-Ikhlas Association for Family Mediation in Meknes, Morocco, Patel says, “I conducted research on family mediation practices and laws related to divorce and women’s rights in the U.S. and Morocco, with a goal of improving the efficacy and scope of the Al-Ikhlas Association’s services.”
Patel was able to share her research results and demonstrate her professional proficiency in the Arabic language by presenting a 15-page comparative analysis to a group of 50 academics and professionals in Morocco.
During the final semester of her Arabic Flagship capstone year, Patel interned with the Olive Oil Farm & Co-op of Sidi Mohammed in Meknes, Fès-Meknès, Morocco. She says, “I expanded my personal knowledge of the changes in agricultural and livestock product and treatment of livestock in Morocco by conducting informational interviews with professionals within the Regional Directorate of Agriculture Fes. I also got to experience working on the farm myself.”
By the time she graduated in May 2022, Patel had strong language skills and experience working with professionals in multiple countries and disciplines. After completing four professional internships herself, Patel now hires interns of her own, and encourages current HLS students to discover for themselves how global Indiana really is.