Alum-turned-tutor Aparna Ravilochan (SF12) Returns to the Classroom
November 23, 2021 | By Les Poling
Throughout the history of St. John’s College, undergraduate and Graduate Institute Johnnies have used the Program as an academic springboard into an enormous variety of careers and vocations: fiction writing, finance, academic scholarship, pediatrics, surgery, public service, law, and more.
But some Johnnies answer a different call—one that finds them far closer to their intellectual home. Whether as community facilitators, public safety officers, admissions counselors, or in various other positions, there is a quiet tradition of St. John’s alumni returning to their alma mater in order to contribute to its continued existence as “the most contrarian college in America.”
So, why do these Johnnies return? Is it because there’s simply no other place like St. John’s when it comes to scholarly life and academic rigor? Is it to address a specific or as-yet-unknown need? To answer those questions, we spoke to recent graduates about St. John’s, studying and working at the college, and more. This is part of a three-part series featuring recent graduates who have returned to the college; for the complete series, read our conversations with Lily Kowaczyk (A18) and Alex Ingham (SFGI13).
Since graduating from St. John’s Santa Fe in 2012, Aparna Ravilochan (SF12) has kept busy, earning a Fulbright teaching fellowship, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and more.
“I’ve taught English in Malaysia, thought a lot about Aristotle at the University of Chicago, gotten married, and had a child,” she explains. “Each of those experiences has been exponentially more formative than the last.”
Now, nearly a decade after graduating, Ravilochan has returned to the St. John’s seminar table, this time as a tutor in Santa Fe. She says she looks forward to revisiting “many” of the texts she explored nine years ago—“Phaedrus, the Annals of Tacitus, the Principia! And give me War and Peace anytime”—but even more so, she’s relishing the chance to dive back into the college’s “collective enterprise.” We spoke with Ravilochan about how St. John’s has changed since 2012, the experience of teaching where she once was a student, and much more; read on below!
How do you think you’ve changed since you graduated from St. John’s?
I’m sure I’ve changed, but in the Aristotelian sense that it’s been a fulfillment of what was already latent as a potentiality. That potentiality, I think, has a lot to do with my undergraduate experience here.
When you graduated, did you have any inkling that you could end up back at the college in a professional capacity?
Not an inkling, exactly, but certainly a small hope. I was wistful after graduation; it felt a little like I’d been kicked out against my will. It was a comfort to think I might be back someday.
Was there anything in particular that made you want to return to St. John’s as a member of the faculty—something specific about the responsibilities of a tutor, a characteristic of the college, something new at the college that you wanted to experience? Or was it more general?
The college’s twin pillars lured me back: Program and pedagogy. It’s a privilege to be able to dwell with these particular texts, to see deeper and deeper into them each time (I hope) through students’ fresh eyes. And the collective enterprise of the St. John’s classroom is a truly rare and special thing in higher education.
Many things have changed since 2012, including some elements of St. John’s. From your perspective, what do you think has changed or stayed the same about St. John’s, and what about those changes appeals to you?
I see a more robust support system in place for students now: freshman advisors, the Bridge program, twice as many writing assistants as there used to be, and so on. I’m really pleased to see that. I think St. John’s can sometimes have this intimidating “sink or swim” ethos, but now it feels more like, “hey, there are lifeguards.”
What are you enjoying most about being back on campus as a tutor? And alternatively, has there been anything unexpected or challenging?
I’m learning to tend and attend to the classroom in a new way. As a student, I felt free to lose myself in discussion, whether that was in excitement or confusion or the heat of disagreement. I could really give myself over to it. But you can’t be quite so unselfconscious as a tutor: no matter how consuming a train of thought might be, I’m still thinking on some level about how to make sure our class progress is shared or how to get other voices into the mix.
What are you looking forward to most during the upcoming academic year?
Maybe it’s foolish to hope for this anytime soon, but I’m really looking forward to that magical day when we can all have our masks off and see each other’s faces in class.
How do you think your time as a St. John’s student will inform and influence your role as a tutor—whether in practical ways or something more abstract?
I think that familiarity with the material—even if I’m relearning a lot of it—relieves some of the weight of being a new tutor. I have a sense of the trajectory of each class, of its themes: it feels like I’m humming along, however falteringly, to a tune I’ve heard before. I can have faith that if we don’t get around to discussing some interesting idea that a Euclid proposition raises, we’ll be able to loop back to that question with another prop down the road. I think, too, that if I hadn’t been a Johnnie I might feel more pressure to take a strong lead or to fill silences. As an alumna, I’m able to sit back a little more comfortably.