CCI Alumni Ran Podcast Celebrates Cultural Exchange and Heritage

What do Colombian coffee and arepas have in common with Indian biryani and masala? Well, Community College Initiative (CCI) Program Alumni and long-distance relationship duo Luisa Trujillo Lopez (Colombia, Northern Virginia Community College – Annandale, Business Administration, 2019-2020) and Aswin Rengarajan (India, Northern Virginia Community College – Annandale, Business Administration, 2019-2020) set out to answer just that.

Of Humble Beginnings

To better understand why the duo ultimately decided to create a podcast, which in their words “explores what it is like learning and living in each other’s cultures”, you first must understand the cultural backgrounds which inspired them.

Aswin, who lived in Malaysia as a child, spent his first couple of years attending school alongside students from Malaysia, China, and India. Soon after, however, he moved with his family back to India where for the next fifteen years of his life he had limited interaction with people outside of India. Aswin shared “I guess the [first] foreigners I had the chance to talk with were a couple of Americans from the US Consulate who interviewed me [for the CCI Program].”

Aswin spends the evening together with his Indian friends before he disembarks for the United States.

Luisa hails from a farm in the “coffee axis” of Colombia—a rural area of Colombia famous for growing and producing most of the South American country’s coffee—and grew up with limited exposure to other cultures.  Talented in both English and Spanish, she strove to expand her horizons by finding work as a translator. Though Luisa’s translating experience connected with people from around the world, she still felt shy and reserved when speaking with them about Colombian culture.

Luisa poses for a selfie with Brazilian and Japanese tourists to Colombia as she serves as a translator.

For Aswin and Luisa, applying to the CCI Program was not only an opportunity to change their lives by accessing the in-demand education and professional skills necessary to be competitive in our modern global economy. It was also an opportunity to immerse themselves in new cultures and experience all that the world has to offer.

A Year of Cultural Exchange

The duo’s immersion into new cultures began immediately after they disembarked their planes in the United States. During the CCI Program, participants become roommates with people who come from diverse backgrounds with their own perspectives on life, which presents a wealth of opportunities for participants to expand their understanding and make life-long friends with others who may not look or think similarly to them. As Aswin so aptly puts it:

It was incredibly beautiful to see, learn, and live with people from remote parts of our world. We could always visit a country and maybe even spend some months there. But getting the chance to live with people from multiple countries for one whole year is a totally different thing. We all had different ways of handling things, and for sure we did have some disagreements, surprises, and a lot of laughs! Getting the chance to witness different cultural practices, taste a variety of international foods, learn the stories of people who faced difficult situations in life is an unimaginable thing.

Throughout the program, Luisa and Aswin weren’t only learning about other cultures; they were also sharing their own Indian and Colombian cultural norms and traditions with others. This exchange of cultural understanding had a profound impact on the duo, as Luisa shares:

I discovered the U.S. during the program, for sure, but mentally, I also traveled to India, Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey, and many other countries. Once in the program, I learned cultural traits, but overall, I opened my mind to understand and appreciate the huge diversity that the world contains. Some characteristics took my heart forever, some others freaked me out, but the main point is that I integrated them, and they began to be part of my essence, too.


Luisa and Aswin pose with their CCI Program friends as they attend a cultural showcase event at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Luisa and Aswin both remember fondly the characteristics of all the cultures to which they were introduced. The Colombian family of friendship, the laid-back lifestyle of Turkish culture, the drive for growth and success of their Ivorian peers, the immense generosity of Indonesian culture, the importance of education in Kenya, the emphasis on honor in Egyptian culture, and the personal independence and responsibility that is a hallmark of American people all remain with them to this day.

Aswin and Luisa pose alongside the 2019-2020 Northern Virginia Community College cohort of CCI participants during a cultural potluck.


The Making of “Masala of Cultures”

It was this passion for learning about other cultures and sharing about their own – as well as finding a way to keep in touch while over 10,000 miles (16,000 km) away – which inspired Luisa and Aswin to create their podcast, “Masala of Cultures”.

Aswin explains that the podcast name “Masala of Cultures” comes from India’s rich culinary culture. A masala is a mixture of spices and herbs frequently used in Indian cooking. The duo chose Masala of Cultures because the podcast is, as Aswin puts it “a mixture of things, a mixture of cultures, including the very diverse Indian and Colombian cultures.” So, just as a traditional masala is a combination of different spices and herbs to make one harmonious recipe, a masala of cultures is a combination of different cultures intertwining in harmony.

But getting a podcast off the ground is no easy task. The planning, content creation, editing, and finally uploading all your hard work online for people to access it can be quite intensive. However, Luisa and Aswin received a hands-on world-class education at Northern Virginia Community College. The duo explains,”[Studying at NOVA] certainly influenced the creation of our podcast. The both of us were studying in the business field, so we had the opportunity to learn how to make things from scratch, having marketing and management classes. Moreover, we both got internships that were related to digital marketing and social media management. We learned the impact that creating content had in inspiring people. We wanted to do the same with our story.”

For Luisa and Aswin the podcast has a deeper meaning — they explain, “It is a medium to share and help people that are in similar positions like us. This project allows us to reminisce about our beautiful journey and we want to keep doing this for as long as we can think, sharing our cultures and love with everyone around us!”

However, hosting the podcast is not without difficulties. Limited access to recording equipment and a lack of isolated areas to record clear audio are frequent challenges. But for Luisa and Aswin that is one of their favorite part of the podcast! “We don’t have any special equipment or place to record, so it is really challenging to have moments of silence. Sometimes we start talking and suddenly a family member starts watching a movie, a cow moos, many dogs bark in the background, or a street vendor passes by yelling ’Sweet, delicious avocados for 2 thousand pesos.’ Then, when editing we just have so many bloopers that I spend all my time laughing at it.”

Luisa poses with her family on their coffee bean farm in Colombia.

Despite their initial challenges “Masala of Cultures” has been quite successful and is now available to listen to on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. With the first season, comprising a total of ten episodes, completed the duo shares there is still plenty more of the podcast to look forward to. “We created a plan of different seasons which includes lists of possible topics that might go from very general to very specific experiences. We are still on the surface of the iceberg of cultures, as we go down deep there are more ideas. We would like to continue exploring to better understand each other’s communities.”

In the end, to Luisa and Aswin it is well worth the effort to continue sharing their cultures via their podcast. The opportunity to connect with others around the world and rejoice in the celebration of culture is an opportunity too rich to give up.  The podcast reception has been positive as well, “The warm messages and support from the people around us make us want to give more every single time. It’s good to know that people find our content valuable” shared Aswin.

If you’re interested in listening along to the Masala of Cultures podcast as they explore and celebrate their rich cultural heritage, make sure to tune into any of their ten episodes covering a wealth of cultural topics from dances, movies and television, clothing, etiquette, festivals and traditions, and local attractions! To check out the Masala of Cultures podcast on all their platforms follow this link.

The Masala of Cultures logo


Do you have a story that you would love to share with the Community College Initiative Program? Participants, alumni, instructors, staff, social hosts, and community members are encouraged to share their stories for the chance to be highlighted in future blogs and social media highlights. Follow this link to complete our “Submit A Story” form.


Written by Evan T. Flatt, Alumni Relations and Communications Coordinator
Edited by Jennifer Stangland, Program Coordinator


Posted in Alumni, Cultural Exchange, Internships.