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On (Point) Wisconsin!

Tom Ashbrook (right) in India, 1975-76

Tom Ashbrook (right) in India, 1975-76

Friday, May 22, 2015

Today Tom Ashbrook is known worldwide as a successful journalist and host of the nationally syndicated On Point. But few know that before his illustrious career took him around the world, he spent a summer on the shores of Lake Mendota studying Telugu at UW-Madison.

In 1975, a 19-year-old Ashbrook, who was then studying at Yale University, took a class studying the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu scripture. He fell in love with the text and the course, but at the same time he was feeling restless at Yale. A classmate suggested that he should go abroad to India, so Ashbrook began to research programs that allowed US students to study in India.

“I looked across the whole country and as far as I could tell, the only university in the country that was sending students to India was the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

Ashbrook immediately called UW-Madison and asked about the India study abroad program they offered. UW agreed to send him to Andhra Pradesh in South India, which meant he would have to learn the Telugu language before he left. 

Ashbrook convinced his girlfriend, Danielle, to join the academic year program as well. Thus, before leaving for India, they both studied Telugu in Madison during the summer of 1975. To Ashbrook, his time at UW-Madison was one of very best summers of his life.

“We absolutely loved it. We loved The University of Wisconsin-Madison,” says Ashbrook.

During the summer, Ashbrook and his girlfriend studied under Narayana Rao , a former UW-Madison professor, with eight other students from around the US. To Ashbrook, Rao was an amazing teacher of Telugu because he transported his students into a whole different world. Ashbrook says Telugu is not an easy language to learn; it’s an entirely different script and the structure is very different from English . However, Rao was able to help his students overcome these challenges and set them up for their experience in India.

Outside of classes, Rao and program director Joe Elder, aided in getting students ready to immerse themselves in India, because it was very rare back in 1975 for American students to study in India. For example, students would eat Indian food at Rao’s house, while he prepared them for the cultural differences they were about to experience.

“The whole program was absolutely perfect,” says Ashbrook. ”The structure was so great because we learned Telugu and at the same time they were really culturally sensitive in getting us ready.”

Ashbrook truly appreciates his time studying Telugu at UW-Madison because the program helped grow their minds and hearts into the Telugu language and Indian culture.

“It was a completely fantastic experience and it set us up for a year in India,” says Ashbrook. “We didn’t know this at the time, but it would be the first of ten years in Asia, which fundamentally shaped both of our lives.”

After studying Telugu at UW-Madison for the summer, Ashbrook and his girlfriend spent an academic year in India under the direction of Elder. There, he was able to step out of his bubble of only understanding American culture and was able to see the fullness of life in India.

“We had such a fantastic time in India,” says Ashbrook.  “We grew so much. We learned so much. Our souls grew in India and you know we studied in Andhra we traveled all over India and we were smitten with Asia and we just couldn’t get enough of it.”

Having the knowledge of Telugu provided Ashbrook much more depth of Indian culture because he was able to interact with Indians in a more thoughtful way than if he did not have the language.

“You know, as popular as English is, there are billions of people on this planet who don’t know it at all,” says Ashbrook. “And they hold personal, cultural and intellectual treasures and if you want access to the treasures of the world, language is the road to ultimately do it.”

Through all of Ashbrook’s experiences, he believes that language learning is important for future careers and goals.

“Employers know, they recognize the curiosity of people who take the initiative to learn that other language,” says Ashbrook. “If you can learn a language, it means you have discipline and it marks you as a person of ambition that’s beyond the ordinary and intellectual adaptability."

Even years after his experience at UW-Madison, Ashbrook says he will never forget the time he spent in Madison studying Telugu.

“Language study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the year they sent me to India was a cornerstone of my entire life, in career terms, in human terms,” says Ashbrook. “I’m giant fan of UW-Madison, and for my entire life I will be endlessly grateful for the path that they put my feet on. I’m in their debt.”

For more information about summer language study at UW-Madison, visit the Summer Language Offerings and Institutes page.

Story by Nichole Francois, Language Institute