Apoorva Kandakatla

Saskia Berrios-Thomas | Photos by  John Hamilton

Apoorva Kandakatla spent her childhood navigating between two worlds — the dusty streets of her parent’s Hyderabad, India, and the cracked sidewalks of her new home in Ohio’s suburbs. 

After emigrating from India to the United States at 3 years old, she became a liaison to life in the States for her parents, who were still learning American customs.

She went to American schools, learned fast and brought her lessons back home, giving her parents a comprehensive education on new traditions and customs — fielding questions like, “Why is Christmas such a big deal here?” 

By the time her parents had her twin sisters Ananya and Anuhya in 2004, Kandakatla, now a senior studying neuroscience, said they no longer needed her help ordering drinks at Starbucks or clarifying words spoken through a thick accent for other listeners. And her parents were more willing to delve wholeheartedly into western, American traditions, such as getting a Christmas tree.

“[My sisters] didn’t have to adjust to everything,” Kandakatla said. “I have an open mind about a lot of different things and people, and they didn’t have the opportunity to see those differences.”

Through her parents, Kandakatla realized her passion for helping immigrants grow comfortable in their new homes. After coming to one meeting at the suggestion of a friend, Kandakatla made the connection between the club and her life at home. Now co-president of Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Development at Pitt, Kandakatla works with refugees to raise awareness of local and global refugee crises and to help them ease into American life.

“I understand where they’re coming from and why it’s hard,” she said. “I think we take for granted the really simple things, you know, like, ‘How do I talk to people in the grocery store? How do I pay taxes?’”

At FORGE, Kandakatla works with families through the in-home tutoring program and with refugee high school students through the college prep program in which tutors help juniors and seniors at Brashear High School prepare for the SAT and apply for college.

“It’s hard for people who are from a refugee background to succeed in high school where even the standardized tests are based on your comprehension of English,” Kandakatla said. “When I tutor kids for the SAT, they find the vocab section very hard, and I don’t blame them for that because even I find it hard and English was my first language.”

Kandakatla joined FORGE as a sophomore, where she met a student refugee from Thailand.

The student enrolled in a college prep program, registered for the SAT and arrived at the bus stop early on the day of the test — only to spend three hours waiting for a Port Authority bus.

The bus never came.

He missed the costly exam.

Stories like that student’s motivate Kandakatla at FORGE.

“Seeing what they experience really drives me to try our best to help them, not even help them but take their input into account to work with them to help their transition,” Kandakatla said.

Before starting the tutoring program, Kandakatla would visit the family in their new home once a week, working one-on-one with them to ensure they can commute to work and buy food.

“We don’t just go and teach them English,” Kandakatla said. “We do that if it’s needed, but we evaluate what the family needs help with.”

Kandakatla said once she started working in families’ homes, she realized the needs of women refugees differ from those of their families. 

Complimentary bus passes and help with job skills aren’t always helpful to female refugees, she said, because many women prefer to stay home and care for their children.

Because of these cultural differences, Kandakatla said these women’s voices are often lost in the shuffle of securing job interviews and transportation.

As she pursues a certificate in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, Kandakatla said she’s studying the ways refugee placement programmers can develop designs that address women’s desires and cultural norms.

Through a semesterlong community-based research fellowship through Pitt’s Honors College, Kandakatla is identifying the barriers that female Bhutanese refugees face with independence, education and health care.

Through focus groups, Kandakatla interviews Bhutanese mothers to learn how their arrival could’ve been more comfortable for them as women and mothers.

“A lot of resettlement agencies don’t take [women’s issues] into account,” Kandakatla said. “They are focused on just getting them jobs and sometimes these women don’t want that or don’t have the time.”

Despite all her research and volunteer work, Kandakatla still credits her interest in and empathy for the refugee population to her upbringing with immigrant parents. 

“When I came, I got to experience their struggles more as immigrants,” Kandakatla said. “It opened my eyes to how people from this background face a disadvantage in a lot of ways.”