By Amy Grace Drinkwater
Aparna Padsalgikar, a citizen of India and former badminton champion living in Chester County, recently shared her journey towards a career as a social worker in the United States, where she has been residing for the past nine years due to her husband, Ajay’s, occupation.
She works as a counseling therapist in West Chester. Her husband is a polymer scientist whose career has placed them on different parts of the globe.
His job in Arrotech and his current company, TSM, a company that develops polymers that go in medical devices, has placed them in Belgium, Scotland, and Australia as well as the U.S., which has brought her a wide array of cultural experiences.
Since retiring from badminton, Padsalgikar received her degrees from India and Australia. She has an associate’s degree in family therapy, a bachelor’s degree in sociology and two master’s degrees in social work and couple and relationship counseling.
During her sports career, Padsalgikar completed her bachelor’s degree online. She said she had always been very fascinated by other cultures and working with people.
Padsalgikar realized that when she moved to the U.S. in 1994, her credentials from India and Australia wouldn’t transfer, which has restricted her career path.
“I can do general case management, but I can’t do clinical work,” Padsalgikar said. “I’m trained to be a therapist, but I can’t be a therapist. For that, I’d have to go back to school [in the U.S.].”
Luckily, when living in Minnesota in 2011, Interfaith Outreach Community Partners offered her a volunteer internship followed by a job as a case manager and behavior therapist working with autistic children.
This led to her current position of community navigator for the Friends Association in West Chester, where she works with low income families and connects people who are in shelters to important resources.
Padsalgikar, who grew up in the small town of Karnataka in southern India, said the women in her town were primarily stay-at-home mothers and wives, but her mother was different, which is one of the reasons why she was able to find her passion for badminton.
“Our family was sort of different than other families,” Padsalgikar said.
Padsalgikar spoke on how very fortunate she was growing up in her family. Her mother came from a family of educators and her father came from a family of doctors.
Her mother grew up in the Maharashtra region, where women’s education and exposure to sports and learning was more progressive after India’s independence from Britain. Padsalgikar’s mother had also been a state level volleyball player.
“She was one of the very few women who actually worked in a college as a professor,” Padsalgikar said. “We had a very unique upbringing compared to other kids.”
Padsalgikar was very active in sports growing up since her mother would take her and her sister to a club in the evening that had badminton courts and tennis courts.
“It was very rare for girls to do that [play sports] in the town,” Padsalgikar said.
Her mother exposed her to music as well.
“The southern part [of India] has four different states with four different languages,” Padsalgikar said. “Every state has a different culture and language.”
She described India as a very diverse country and the people as foodies, family oriented and very colorful. Reflecting on where her badminton career started, Padsalgikar said before she turned 15 in 1980, her father had entered her older sister and her for fun in a state level tournament in Banglore. Padsalgikar ended up winning the competition.
“We just went there to have fun and to just see how players play,” Padsalgikar said. “I didn’t even know what level I was at because that was not the intention. So my whole career shifted completely.”
After the tournament, Padsalgikar won her next tournament match and ended up representing the Banglore state in nationals. She said the committee had called her beforehand to inform her of the proper dress code and equipment because this was necessary for competition. Players can be disqualified if they don’t follow these rules, according to Padsalgikar.
“We had to change so many things,” Padsalgikar said. “We had to get proper rackets.”
From training to learning how to fix the rackets and string them correctly, since the town they lived in didn’t have a repair shop, Padsalgikar gives all the credit to her father who studied everything about badminton.
Badminton took over her life from then on. Padsalgikar said that education ended up “taking the back seat.” She traveled across India participating in national ranking competitions. Eventually, in 1987 she represented India, becoming a national champion under the age of 18.
Padsalgikar said the competitions weren’t professional at that time until around three years later. Currently, the game is a league with top players from all countries participating every year according to Padsalgikar, with the scoring rules changed to get more viewership.
Padsalgikar ended up playing for a living. At the pinnacle of her badminton career, she was eighth in the country, which she explained paid for the cost of her travel, food and gear.
In doubles competitions, she won three times as champion under the age of 18 and was runner-up in the over 18 class. Padsalgikar toured in her badminton career, traveling to Russia, Holland and Mauritius.
She said that when she first started to play badminton, the prizes were only medals, but now prize money is available. Padsalgikar retired playing badminton in the 90’s since the sport was rough on her knees and joints. She said that athletes back then didn’t get the kind of physical therapy support and training for their bodies as they do now.
She said she first had plans of becoming a doctor, but that changed once she realized her love for people after her badminton career. When she retired from badminton, her and her husband then moved to the U.S. for his job, which was a change from her lifestyle in India.
Padsalgikar spoke on how when she lived in a small town in Clemson, South Carolina, her social life became different from what was normal to her in India.
“I was looking out [of my window] and I didn’t see a single person,” Padsalgikar said. “It was so depressing. I am used to being around people all the time.”
She mentioned how everyone was always out and about chatting with one another and family and friends were always in her home.
“Growing up in India, because of the population [size], there is so much competition and there
are limited resources,” said Padsalgikar when comparing life in America to life in India. “The family system is different there.”
She explained how some families in India live with multiple generations, which can give a sense of safety. Padsalgikar said that she sees families who struggle all the time in America who are one paycheck away from being homeless. In India that would never happen according to Padsalgikar.
“People can just come and stay [in India] because they don’t have a job,” Padsalgikar said. “That culture of guests being welcome and not giving up on anyone.”
She mentioned how the city and culture in India is catching up with the west, but the older generations practiced selflessness, opening their large homes to family whenever they need a place to stay for however long.
Padsalgikar explained how she has a passion for people. Her career as a community navigator has been a wonderful journey and she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, she said.
The mission of her job, Friends Association, is to prevent homelessness.
“I get a lot of job satisfaction in helping families navigate the system and see them stabilize and thrive in the community,” Padsalgikar said.
She has known people who have immigrated into the country and have had many struggles, especially depending on the career and education credentials which generally don’t transfer.
She said she feels very fortunate her husband is in the engineering field, which has accepted his degrees from outside the country.
“One thing about America, if you are good, dedicated and passionate about the field you work in, you get recognition,” Padsalgikar said. “You might have to struggle a little bit to get through the first job, but once you do well the acknowledgement is there.”
As for discrimination as an Indian in America, Padsalgikar said she hasn’t experienced it for herself on a personal level.
“Having lived in all these places, including my own country, there can be a subtle level of some kind of discrimination happening in all places,” Padsalgikar said. “There is not going to be a perfect place.”
Padsalgikar said one of the reasons why she really likes living in the states is she enjoys Americans and how friendly they are.
“Americans are very friendly,” Padsalgikar said. “You need to make just a little effort and then you know you can bond really fast with Americans. You just need to break the ice first.”
Padsalgikar mentioned that education and certificates are valued in America and that in India not having any education makes it hard to make a living. Indians take advantage of the job opportunities in America and end up very successful, Padsalgikar said.
Her theory on why Indians push themselves to do well and succeed is due to Indians fight in the past for their independence. Padsalgikar explained that India had been under the rule of the British, draining them of their resources and causing poverty for about 150 years before they won their independence in 1947.
“Indians who come here, already have excelled back in India in such a competitive field or education, so they end up doing really well in America,” Padsalgikar said.
Padsalgikar said she sometimes wonders if she didn’t have a knee injury, which forced her to stop playing, if she would still be connected to the sport. But, she said she is happy where she ended up in her career.
She said she is one of the very few [of her badminton friends] who has gone into a completely different field career wise. When asked if there was anything helpful she has taken away from her journey in life, she smiled.
“Having played [badminton] for 10 years, it has taught me how to live a disciplined life that is very helpful in all walks of my life including my job,” Padsalgikar said.
Although Padsalgikar said she feels blessed with where her life has led her, she knows she has an even bigger purpose, thanks to the influence of her Indian culture: focus on the family, especially children, and give them the most so they end up succeeding in life.
“We sacrifice so that the next generation does well,” Padsalgikar said.
Contact Amy Grace Drinkwater at email@example.com