After presenting the stories of Svetlana Winward and Dan O’Rourke, we wanted to keep up with the trend of spotlighting teachers. As we’ve said in previous posts, teachers are some of the world’s most underappreciated heroes. Not only are they themselves heroes, but they attempt to bring out the inner heroes of future generations. Rajeev “Raj” Nirmalakhandan is a perfect example.
A film professor at New Mexico State University, Raj instills within his students more than just his knowledge of filmmaking: he is able to connect with them via his lived experiences. And Raj has a lot of those.
Raj’s Humble Beginnings and the “Head-Scratchers”
Raj was born in Sri Lanka, an island off the coast of India. From an early age, he was afflicted with a variety of medical conditions that doctors simply referred to as “head-scratchers,” as they were unable to figure out just what his problems were and how to solve them. Growing political tension in Sri Lanka forced him and his family to relocate to the United States.
Raj was thrust into a world where he was different. He looked different, spoke a different language, and hardest of all, still dealt with cryptic medical conditions. However, his open-mindedness and signature sense of humor eventually won him the respect of his peers.
On making friends, Raj tells us, “I try my best not to judge anyone,” he says. “I think that so many issues in the world stem from the fact that we are isolated within groups, yet we have so much in common. I was this small brown kid from Sri Lanka, yet I found so much commonality with people in America. Instead of focusing on what’s different, let’s find our commonalities, and we’ll find ways to connect with each other.”
Raj’s First Surgery
In the US, Raj was also finally diagnosed. Doctors said he had a condition called Syringomyelia. This is a rare disorder in which fluid-filled cysts form within your spinal cord. Over time, these cysts compress and damage parts of the spine. Its symptoms are chronic pain, stiffness, and weakness in the back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
Even as a child, Raj did not allow his diagnosis to consume him. He still learned to drive, he continued to excel academically, and at the end of high school, he began applying to colleges, with UCLA being his first choice.
Around this time, he also had his first surgery. The procedure left him in so much pain that while writing his UCLA application letter, he was only able to write for five minutes at a time, as sitting down was too excruciating. Despite the agonizing writing process, his application was completed. He was accepted into UCLA.
Raj Makes a Name for Himself
From an early age, Raj was passionate about creating art. So when he began his college education, his natural inclination towards creativity led him to UCLA’s world-renowned fine-arts program. He was even able to land an internship at DreamWorks. However, when everything seemed to be going well, he was interrupted by yet another procedure.
Ever since, Raj has continued to undergo spinal surgeries that force him to re-learn how to walk. Yet through it all, he has maintained a positive attitude and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
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It is this optimism that got Raj to where he is today. Aside from being a film professor, he is a filmmaker. “I write. I direct. I edit. I design. I don’t do stunts. I can’t cry on cue,” he tells us.
Raj’s extensive resume includes directing the film The Odd Way Home, which won an Audience Choice Award at the Albuquerque Film Festival. He also has a dozen other credits for various short films and documentaries. On top of his impressive filmmaking experience, he is a husband and recent father. His family, he says, is his greatest creative influence.
What We Can Learn from Raj
Throughout his life, the odds were stacked against Raj. You would think that escaping his home country, being thrust into a new culture where he was automatically billed as an outcast, and dealing with a rare illness would have kept him down. However, he always pushed through. Even when the pain was unbearable, he pushed through. As a result, he is an inspiration to a lot of people, especially his students.
“I think that even the smallest positive impact that we can have on other people’s lives can make us heroes,” he tells us. “Because they may be very small for us, but that small thing could be huge for the person you do it for. It could be even just listening to someone. It could be a kind word or kind gesture that to that person can mean so much more.”
This principle is exemplified in Raj’s life. For other people who may be struggling with similar illnesses, he has the following words of encouragement: “Sometimes I feel like my body is a used car. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the ride.”