When Soundarya Balasubramani left her home to pursue a master’s of science at Columbia University, she had no idea that she would return as a writer.
Hailing from India, Balasubramani has always been an overachiever. She graduated at the top of her class during her undergrad and received a gold medal for scoring the highest CGPA in the department.
Her excellent performance continued in grad school, where she graduated from Columbia with an “Outstanding Student Service Award.”
However, as an international student in the US, Soundarya was no stranger to challenges.
“You land in a new country, and then within a month, you start networking and meeting all these people. Wearing suits and having to introduce yourself. It was intimidating for someone like me to do that because I was very introverted,” Balasubramani shares.
To cope with all this other-ness, she turned to writing. And that is where it all began.
“Every month I was at Columbia, I wrote an article capturing the lessons and the raw moments of what it felt like to be an international student. I published those 16 articles as a short, free book on my website later on,” she says.
Titled “Walking Left to Walking Right” (to signify walking on different sides of the road in India and the US), her monthly series dove into all her experiences while at university.
“I was helping myself and helping other people at the same time by capturing their thoughts that maybe they didn’t have at the time or weren’t interested in writing, ” she says.
She recalls a time in university, after publishing her third article, when a fellow Indian student approached her at the library to express how much they enjoyed her writing and related to it.
Today, she’s the author of one published book, with a second in the works.
Her first book, “Admitted,” is a guide to help those who aspire to study abroad. She goes through each process, from choosing a university to preparing resumes, attending interviews, and securing scholarships.
“All of these steps are very fragmented, and I thought, ‘Can we write a book that consists of all the insights in one place and becomes the go-to guide?’” Thus, ‘Admitted’ was born,” she says.
“Admitted” became a best-seller on Amazon India and has been read by over 3,000 students.
Balasubramani first discovered her love for writing while completing her undergraduate studies at the National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirappalli.
“I was in love with physics back then so I wrote this article kind of dumbing down Einstein’s theory of relativity,” she says.
“That reached a lot of people and garnered great feedback. This made me think I should keep doing more of this.”
The idea for her second book, “Unshackled,” came about as Balasubramani was forced to confront immigration in America soon after starting her job.
“Within a year of working at Salesforce, I knew I wanted to quit my job and become an entrepreneur. That’s when immigration resurfaced at the top of my mind,” she says.
“I began exploring what the different immigration pathways were that I could take. What visas can I apply for? Can I start a company on an H-1B? How can I become a solopreneur? And that led me to many useful and unheard of options like the O-1 visa, IEP programme, cap-exempt H-1B, etc.,” she shares.
After quitting her job, she joined a three-person startup to realise her vision. Balasubramani posted on her LinkedIn about her interest in writing a book about immigration. To her surprise, that post reached over 1.5 million people and she received hundreds of emails from other students facing the same problem.
“’Unshackled’ is a blend of real-life stories of what it means to be an immigrant along with tactical advice on navigating the complex immigration system in America,” she says.
She is co-authoring it with Sameer Khedekar, a nationally-ranked immigration lawyer with over 25 years of experience.
With the help of a crowdfunding campaign and a grant, they were able to get this project off the ground.
“We raised US$50,000 through crowdfunding, and a week after the campaign, we received another US$50,000 as a grant from Emergent Ventures India.”
Writing had always been a side hobby until she decided to take the risk and quit her job.
“There were so many moments during the creation of ‘Unshackled’ when I would pause writing, sit back, and think, ‘How did life get so good that I get to work on something I care so much about as part of my job?’ It was a surreal feeling,” she says.
The book is just a few months away from being published, and Balasubramani cannot wait to share her book with the rest of the world.
She encourages others to take that leap of faith to follow their passion.
“Most people think of risk in an acute sense. The fear that if they quit their job today, they won’t be able to make rent in a few months,” she says.
“But they don’t think that ‘If I don’t quit my job today, then in five years I’m gonna look back and regret that I wasted the most energetic years of my life.’ I urge more people to think about the latter.”