May is Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Asian American Heritage Month. Throughout the month, The Daily will highlight members of the university community who are of Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Asian American heritage to celebrate their accomplishments as members of the campus community and shed light on their experiences at CWRU.
Growing up in Chennai, India, Priyanka Suresh discovered an early interest in energy and clean water. It led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering from nearby Anna University, ultimately sparking a passion for separations—using membranes as a technology—and a desire to earn an advanced degree.
Now a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Case Western Reserve University, Suresh is well on her way to a career in the field. But it wasn’t an obvious path—though she knew she wanted to attend a PhD program in the United States, she’d never so much as stepped foot on an airplane before and didn’t have much context.
For Suresh, asking questions and accepting help has been her key to success. Following her undergraduate commencement, she reached out to nearly 50 people from her university who had gone on to pursue advanced degrees in the U.S., asking them which programs were the best fits and using their advice to narrow her options down to a top 10.
Among those programs was one at Case Western Reserve, where Suresh directed another wave of questions to help shape her decision. The answers she received did not disappoint.
“From the time I first spoke with the [faculty and staff in the] program I felt like I was really welcome here,” she said “I could tell they really cared and wanted me to come to the department.”
This feeling followed Suresh as she arrived in Cleveland for the first time, where she recalls feeling an immediate connection with her cohort despite being one of the only international students. Early experiences helped her shape her academic focus, too, which she centered on designing polymer membranes for radiochemical separations for use in nuclear fuel and medical imaging.
Outside of the classroom, Suresh has immersed herself in extracurricular opportunities, making a point to never say no to an opportunity. She’s served as a judge for poster presentations, has sat on a faculty hiring community, and committed herself to a graduate student coaching program, all experiences she credits with helping her learn more about herself. She also has leaned into opportunities within her department, taking part in ChEGSO, the Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Organization, and learning to navigate her career as a woman in STEM through events designed by female faculty members.
Suresh also has been an active member of Satrang, the Graduate Indian Student Organization on campus that works to promote Indian culture and heritage through annual events such as Diwali celebrations while helping new Indian students at CWRU network and adjust to campus life. Suresh served as president of the organization beginning in the fall of 2019, helping navigate hurdles related to COVID-19 before switching to serve as an operations officer.
Now, Suresh is passing on the lessons she’s learned to new international students at the university. Her best advice? Seek out help—and take it.
“Once you’re in a new country, take the help when it’s offered,” she said, noting how people from across campus went out of their ways to make her feel settled. The help she’s received has been as significant as that offered by staff members in ISS and the co-op office, to as minor as American friends teaching her about tipping culture and how here, unlike in India, it’s common for strangers to greet you on the sidewalk.
“Once you’re comfortable here, you can pay it forward when new students arrive and need help,” she said. “My entire experience here has been amazing; I wouldn’t change a thing.”
With plans to graduate within the next year, Suresh is considering her options for her next steps—either entering industry or seeking out a post-doc position before ultimately moving back to India. Whichever route she pursues, she’s confident asking the right questions will help her find her way.