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Nandini Menon’s Got Learning on the Brain

May/09/2022 / by Abhijit Masih
nandini menon

Nandini Menon opened the Cedar Hill Preparatory School in 2003, thus earning a reputation of excellence for herself.

Though the founder of one of the top private day schools in Central New Jersey, serving children of grades pre-K through 8, she has many plans – among others to finish her doctorate, and to offer high schoolers, college students and curious adults real life project-based learning and work force skill development.

Nandini Menon spoke to SEEMA about how she came to set up her school, challenges she has faced, and her future plans.

Tell us about the path that ultimately prepared you for setting up a school?

I worked in India in the mid 80s in the burgeoning apparel export industry working for MEXX, a European brand. The charm of my work in India was that it involved being engaged in all aspects of developing apparel product development, starting with the drawings to working with weavers in South India, getting commitments for the designs and managing the production of the apparel line.

I could not have asked for a better business exposure at the age of 21.

Once I came to the United States, and moved to New Jersey, it was my dream to attend Philadelphia Textile School – the foremost textile college in the world [then]. I was working for Jones New York. Between my husband and my boss, they encouraged me to apply there. I was admitted to the Master of Engineering program in textile product development and production technology, and fortunate to be selected for a fellowship at TRI [The Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia], Princeton, to provide a solution to improve the indoor air quality for people who live in trailer homes. As a young designer in the US, I received the Burlington Innovation Award for some of my product designs.

I enjoy creative pursuits and loved designing textiles from industrial to home furnishings. The training and experience I received – to take something from concept to commercialization – served well to provide the foundational skills to start a school.

That’s a big leap – from design to academics.

The earlier experience helped me wear many hats when I started the school – from creating the business plan, school offerings, SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats] analysis to marketing the school. As the school evolved and we added grades, I took on teaching engineering and thinking skills for the middle-school students, and launching a debate club.

I have always been fascinated by neuroscience, and as the field began exploring the way the mind works to better understand learning and learning differences, it provided better insights to the educational industry.

What motivated you, though, to set up the school?

My son was born in 1996, which was a life-changing event. My husband is always involved in pioneering work related to the energy industry. It consumes his life. My life as a design director was also quite hectic and the expectations were not aligned with motherhood or work-life balance.

Most people who have known me since I was in elementary school, will remember that I always took care of young children. While in college I tutored students. In fact, I did a whole year of psychology and child development. So all that engagement made me feel guilty that I could not spend as much time with my son. Moreover, as my son started daycare, I became conscious of the stark contrast in the educational model in India and the US. Both had their strengths and weaknesses. This was the seed for founding the school – an educational model that included best practices from the east and west. The East is all about practice, and building long-term memory skills; the West is about conceptual knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving. Incorporating both aspects provides children with a formidable foundation. That is how Cedar Hill Prep School came into being.

What got you to consider a doctoral program?

While I was attending a learning and brain conference in Boston, I happened to listen to Dr. Mariel Hardiman from Johns Hopkins about their doctorate program in Mind, Brain and Teaching. This led me to apply for the program, and I was admitted to the 2018 cohort. It has been an amazing experience working with other educational leaders, taking courses and working on my problem of practice.

Do discuss some of the challenges you’ve faced.

I tend to have a very optimistic/positive outlook in life, which makes me forget many of the challenges I have faced. However, I will say that the most trying times for a South Asian girl, in my perspective, are between 19 and 22 years. It is about dealing with the unknowns, the pressure of what the future holds, and being shy to openly discuss these worries with people. I can say that in the 80s it was hard to even discuss this openly with parents, because they wanted their daughter to fit the norm.

Understanding that the word “failure” is not fatal or permanent. Watching risk-takers who are resilient gave me courage to act on my aspirations and beliefs. Being kinder to myself, in my self-talk, gave me more strength. Our self-talk and how we perceive situations and events are key to our success.

As a South Asian on Fifth Avenue, I was a minority, but no one treated me as a minority because I did not view myself as one. The power dynamics, whether it is gender or race, exists, but if we do not allow it to come in the way and communicate sincerely with everyone, we are able to forge friendships and alliances that have no boundaries.

To learn more about Nandini Menon and her educational journey, check out Sundays with SEEMA: Nandini Menon

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