This article was published by the Great British Mag content team on 23 September 2022.
There aren’t too many twenty-year-olds who can say they’ve served as a junior ambassador for the US State Department. Or worked on a presidential campaign. Or published a novel. But Pooja Tanjore, an American student who currently divides her time between the College of William and Mary in the US and the University of St Andrews in the UK, can count all of these accomplishments as her own thanks to her dedication to her passions.
Pooja is the first to admit that academics have never been her strength. She knows her education is important but she has also realised that it doesn’t have to be everything. From the time she was fourteen, she knew what her priority was: her love of language.
Which is why, rather than choosing to test into a special maths programme at one of her local high schools in the US, she sat her parents down and convinced them to let her pursue her own path in humanities. She has always loved to write, an ability that has aided her in her public speaking and the political activism she’s been able to get involved in.
As a young high school student, Pooja had the opportunity to intern for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign which was for her “a life-changing experience.” The time she spent knocking on doors and talking with voters in a very polarising election gave her an incredible opportunity to hear a wide range of political perspectives which were often very different from her own.
At one political meeting she attended, Pooja was moved to share the story of her great-grandmother, who had been forced into marriage as a girl in India, which she connected with her passion for supporting women in politics and giving them a real voice. Her speech impressed a number of political activists who were in the audience.
From there, though she was still only 15, Pooja was invited to continue speaking at other conferences and even on TV. But balancing a political career with her studies meant that Pooja missed a lot of high school. “There were days,” she says, “where I had to be across the state to give a speech.” But getting to work in politics, she adds, “always felt bigger than me, so I was always going to prioritise it.”
When she was 17, Pooja in fact made the decision to put her education on hold when she accepted a position as a junior ambassador to Germany through the US Department of State’s Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. After finding out she had gotten into the programme, Pooja quickly made the decision to finish high school early and move abroad.
When she first arrived in Germany, Pooja barely spoke the language but quickly learned how to communicate with her host family and the other members of her small village community. By the end of her exchange year, her experience had solidified her love for working in politics, for language, and for living abroad.
When she returned home, it was time for her to apply to university. But despite all of her incredible experience, it was unclear if any schools would actually accept her.
She knows her education is important, but she’s also realised that it doesn’t have to be everything.
“I skipped a whole year of high school,” she explains. “That was not something that looked good on college applications.” Her high school counsellors advised her to play it safe and not to get her hopes too high.
But as always, Pooja was ambitious. She missed the excitement and challenges of her life in Germany and wanted a similar experience that would push her outside of her comfort zone. So she applied for two joint-degree programmes, one at the University of California in Berkeley and one at William and Mary. Both of these programmes offered her the chance to divide her time as an undergraduate between the US and another country.
“I knew I wanted to flip between two schools just for the kind of range it can give you in whom you can become and how you can communicate with people,” she explains.
Though Pooja got into both programmes, Berkeley was her first choice. But ultimately, she decided that William and Mary was the right choice for her financially. As a resident of Virginia, the state where the school was located, she was able to receive reduced tuition.
For Pooja, this decision was a hard one. After spending a whole year living abroad on her own and gaining so many new experiences, she was reluctant to move back home, even if she would only be in Virginia half the time.
But now, Pooja credits William and Mary and her joint-degree programme for pushing her even harder and giving her a strong sense of discipline. “It was kind of self-inflicted as well,” she admits. “I was just so excited. I wanted to take so many classes. I just love learning and I love school.”
One class she took that would change her life was a summer creative writing course she convinced her dad to let her sign up for after being inspired by the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney. When she promised she’d pay him back, his response was, “Don’t pay me back. Just don’t suck at it.”
For one of her final assignments, Pooja and her classmates were given the prompt “He turned around and his thumb was” and told to write a story with it. But Pooja couldn’t stop at a simple story. Soon, her assignment turned into a full fantasy novel that would eventually be published as Rules of the Red Book.
Pooja’s tale follows a 19-year-old witch hunter named Mallor in his journey to destroy eight witch covens. In her world, women can become witches by committing cannibalism, a power that men don’t have. “The goal,” Pooja says, “was really to teach young people about prejudice and sexism and stereotypes through a really fun story. I always say that while there are a lot of lessons in Rules of the Red Book, you don’t have to learn them unless you want to. But I’ve found that a lot of people do pick up the lessons either way, which is really exciting for me.”
“That representation is important. It can be experienced and exemplified in different spheres.”
The offer for Pooja to have her book actually published came rather unexpectedly. She had previously been featured in another book about female political activists by a fellow William and Mary student. After reading her profile, that publisher reached out to Pooja about a programme they run that spotlights young writers and asked if she would be willing to write a book.
“It was crazy,” Pooja says, “because, like, that’s not how publishing works.” Some writers will spend years submitting their work to agents and publishers before finally signing on to a book deal. But, thanks to all her other hard work in politics and public speaking, Pooja’s offer simply dropped into her lap.
Currently, she’s working on the next book in the series and is considering pursuing publishing after she graduates next year, though not necessarily as an author. She just wants to help bring other marginalised voices to light. “That representation is important,” she says, recognising its connections with her political pursuits. “It can be experienced and exemplified in different spheres.”
But even so, she’s not limiting herself to publishing. “Long-term,” she says, “I’m still hoping to become a diplomat. I’d still love to have a political career, and I still think running for president sounds like fun. There are so many things,” she adds, “that I would love to do, and luckily we all have such long lives to do it all.”
If anything, Pooja’s experience is proof that real-life success doesn’t always have to be based on academics. In her case, the experiences she’s had access to as a student, and especially as an international student, have been just as beneficial and rewarding as those she’s gained in class. And her education has also given her the work ethic to help her to pursue whatever she’s most passionate about, from female representation in politics to fiction writing.
Pooja knows that her education has gotten her where she is today, and she encourages other students to explore how they can broaden their perspectives, however that may look for them.