Roughly 210 juniors entered my classroom during the 2016-2017 school year. One of them made a special impression. He stood at 5’10 and entered AP Language and Composition each day with a true thirst for learning and a willingness to share.
I remember him for being respectful to his peers, for his inquisitive nature and for his jocular demeanor. But most of all, I will remember Vaishnav Siddapureddy’s disposition as we studied Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” a true account of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s International Airport. During discussion, he embraced the content and generously helped other students with specific questions about Indian culture. He led the discussion after a few minutes and all heads turned to him, not me. He was the teacher in that moment.
I felt so proud and still do, even though he is no longer part of the Seaholm student body. College — and his tremendous football talent — took him to the West Coast, where he now plays defensive back for the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
The Indian SCENE: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Vaishnav Siddapureddy: I was born in Southfield, Mich. and am the firstborn child, with two younger brothers. One is a senior and the other is a sophomore in high school. My brothers and I are pretty close, whether we fight or not and do everything together.
Currently, I am attending Pomona where I am playing football. Since I was a kid, sports have always been a big part of my life. Even though the sport I wanted to play in college kept changing, I knew that I wanted to play something. With my family’s help, I was able to do that.
IS: What was your childhood like?
VS: I grew up in Ann Arbor and it was home to me until seventh grade. I just remember growing up with a huge backyard and every day after school — we would have to finish our homework first — we would go outside and play. As soon as our dad came home from work, we would drag him out to join us.
At that time, I was very competitive with my brothers — it was not fierce competition, but more playful. Later on, we moved to Birmingham and I remember it being a huge change. It was tough to leave all of my friends back home, but what made it easier was getting involved in different activities and sports. That’s how I met most of my friends at Derby Middle School. From there, I went to Seaholm High School and now I am off in California.
IS: So, you’re at Pomona for football — how did your interest begin in the sport?
VS: As a child, I always grew up fantasizing about playing football. My parents weren’t huge fans of it at first. I was actually a bigger soccer fan and that’s what I loved the most. But when I moved to Birmingham, there was a football team and my parents were all right with me playing. As soon as I started playing, there was definitely something different about it. Even though it was a lot more work for me than any other sport, it offered so much comradery. As a child, I grew up with so much passion for watching it and once I finally got to play, it was a wonderful opportunity for me.
IS: What is the fondest memory you have of playing?
VS: It was my junior year and the final game of the season. In the last game, I played receiver and caught the game winning catch. That was probably the most exciting moment of my football career.
IS: Speaking of your football career, what ultimately led you to pick Pomona?
VS: With Pomona, it was obviously a tough decision since it was so far away from home. That’s one of the things that I talked about with Coach DeWald [Seaholm’s football coach]. My final two choices were basically Chicago and Pomona. With the first, my parents would be able to come to a lot of games and with the other, it would be tougher. But for me, Pomona is one of the top schools in the country and it was very important to me to go to a high academic school. I didn’t want to sacrifice my education just to go to any school just to play football. I knew that it would be a longer decision than just four years. As a child, I always dreamed of going to California too and would tell my parents that I want to go there. I couldn’t let the opportunity go.
The guys on the team are just really good people and they made me feel comfortable in the environment. I didn’t feel any pressure to do anything — they already had made me feel as though I was part of their football family. When my mom met the coaches and went through the tour, she was also accepting about the school, which made it easy for me to make my decision. I knew that it would be tough for her to see me go that far.
IS: Did you feel any pressure to fit any kind of stereotype, especially with your community or parents?
VS: Honestly, my parents didn’t want for me to think too much about other people’s expectations within the Indian community. I know that there’s a push to go to Michigan or a Ivy League school. My parents were not with that at all and told me to find the school right for me. I never felt any pressure, but do hear that a lot from other Indian kids — “Oh my god, if I don’t go to Michigan, what’s going to happen?” But, honestly, some kids that go to Michigan are miserable and they might have found a better fit someplace else, like Ohio or another smaller school. So, my advice is to find the school that is the best fit for you and do not worry about what others think of you.
Shoutout to the other Indian athletes out there because I know it’s truly special for us to representing at our respective high schools and colleges especially when so many younger Indian kids are looking up to us!
IS: What are you studying in college?
VS: Pomona has a major called PPE, which is philosophy, politics and economics. When I saw that, it was the perfect fit for me. Coming to college, I didn’t know if I was interested in business or law. As time went on, I have been leaning more towards the law side. PPE gives me the whole broad liberal arts education so that I can have the knowledge of each area. I also plan to minor in anthropology just to branch out a little bit.
IS: It seems that you’re already settled in to the state and the program. Do you often reminisce on your days in Michigan? If so, what do you miss the most?
VS: For sure the number one thing that I miss about Michigan is the people. During the first few weeks of training camp, I felt miserable. I wanted to be home and really missed my family. But after a while, and with welcoming teammates, the transition became easier. I didn’t feel as homesick. Obviously, I don’t miss the weather — I am living in paradise right now! I do call my parents every day.
IS: You do?
VS: Yes. I promised my mom that I would if I went to California. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends too and just really miss the people.
IS: Do you miss anything specific about the Indian community? How are you building a network there amongst other Indian students?
VS: Well, I’ve been able to stay involved directly with the Indian community through a group called AAMP (Asian-American Mentor Program). I sometimes go to those events and meet other Indian kids. I also went to a Diwali festival that they had and met some other people. Since Pomona is part of a five-college consortium, there a lot more Indian kids from other colleges that I got to meet too. I already promised a girl that I met that I would be part of the dance program in the spring, so I will be dancing! As far as home is concerned, I really miss the Indian food!
IS: As a young person, how do you embrace your Indian culture?
VS: Obviously, some people might feel embarrassed about being Indian. I feel a lot of pride in being Indian, especially since India is such a culturally and religiously diverse country. It is one of the most amazing places on Earth and I try to represent India the best that I can. I embrace every part of it.
IS: What Indian traditions do you and your family practice at home?
VS: Well, we have home-cooked Indian food every single night — that definitely maintains some aspect of our tradition. Usually, for Diwali and other festivals, we will go and do a prayer. My mom encourages us to recognize all of the important religious holidays. As a kid, I was part of Sai Spiritual Education and every Sunday we had to say bhajans, which keeps me very much connected to the Indian culture and people.
IS: Vaish, after Pomona, where do you see yourself?
VS: Right now, my thought is to go to law school after college, maybe someplace in California or even the University of Michigan. The main reason why I want to study law is that it is the best way to help people without becoming a doctor (laughs). I have a lot of teammates who are going to help me with that process and with opportunities to shadow lawyers.
Vaishnav’s Best List:
Best Place to Watch a Football Game: The Big House in Ann Arbor or Maple Field on Friday nights at Seaholm.
Best Place for Indian Food: At home with my mom or grandmother cooking
Best Indian Dish: The classic I always love to see on the table is mutter paneer with naan.
Best Thing about California: Definitely the weather — always sunny and 75!