Mary Baldwin University exchange student Sangeetha Nagarajan started off as a classical dancer in her hometown of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. By age 10, she was already studying karate in addition to dance, but had no passion for the popular fighting style. She stumbled upon videos of silambam — an ancient South-Indian martial art of stick fighting — and thought, “I can do that.”

Nagarajan aligned with the values of silambam right away. In addition to gaining self-confidence and self-discipline, the most important lesson that she has learned after nine years of rigorous physical training is that silambam is an art, and embracing art is what makes us human.

Rounding out her second year of undergraduate work at MBU, Nagarajan is a participant of the MBU – Lady Doak College exchange program. “As soon as I arrived at Mary Baldwin, I got excited,” Nagarajan said. “The classes and professors are really cool, and I know I’m here for a reason so I’m finding my purpose.”

After leading her silambam team to dozens of medals and competitions, Nagarajan has never thought to keep her financial prizes for herself. Nearly all her winnings have gone to support the underprivileged, from donating food to homes for the elderly to sponsoring young orphaned girls back home in India. Nagarajan teaches silambam to the girls, hoping to give them strength to conquer their fears and engage them in unique ways.

Teaching silambam gives Nagarajan the chance to share her cultural heritage, not just to showcase her physical strength. “I used to be very shy,” Nagarajan said. “But now I enjoy every moment because I’m not going to get these moments back.”