Asha Rangappa is a Senior Lecturer at the Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former Associate Dean at Yale Law School. Prior to her current position, Asha served as a Special Agent in the New York Division of the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Asha has been a contributor on numerous television and radio outlets, and is now a legal and national security analyst for CNN. For more information on Asha, visit her website.
Can you explain your career path so far?
“Coming out of law school, it can be very easy to go with the grain and do what everybody says you should do.”
I’d say my career path has been non-traditional in a lot of ways. At each step, what I expected I’d do is not what I ended up doing. I went to Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Public Affairs for college. There I was interested in public policy with a focus on Latin America, so one summer I worked at the Columbia desk at the State Department. I learned a lot about Colombia and got it in my head that I wanted to live there, so I applied for a Fulbright in Colombia and got it.
I next spent a year in Bogota, Colombia. At this point, I had already gotten into Yale Law School and deferred my admission for a year. After my Fulbright, I enrolled at Yale and at the end of my law school career, I decided to apply to the FBI. I eventually wanted to be a federal prosecutor and I thought that the FBI would be a workaround to working at a law firm, which was the traditional path to going to the U.S. Attorney’s office. I applied to the FBI thinking I’d kick down doors for a few years, but at the time they weren’t really hiring agents. Instead, I went to Puerto Rico for a year, where I clerked for a judge and then at the end of my clerkship 9/11 happened.
I was in the FBI’s system as a language speaker, which the FBI were desperate to have at that time. At this point, I had been exploring a path in journalism, so getting the call from the FBI brought me to a crossroads. I had to decide if I wanted to go to Quantico or pursue journalism and I decided to go to Quantico. At the FBI, I did counterintelligence investigations in New York for three years. Then I came back to Yale and became the Dean of Admissions at Yale Law School for 12 years. During this time, I also started teaching undergraduate national security law courses. I also started doing some writing and it all laid the groundwork for spring 2017 when everything started happening with the Trump administration. I was getting calls from media outlets to speak on different issues and I eventually got signed by CNN to be a contributor. It’s weird because it links back to this broadcast journalism interest that I had a while ago and it came back into my life in this completely unexpected way!
How and when did you realize you wanted to go to law school?
I think I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian and a “go off the beaten path” kind of person. When I was little, people would ask me if I was going to be a doctor (my dad is a doctor), but in school I started doing things like debate and people said I’d be a great lawyer. I think that planted the seed in my head. I also had a natural interest in policy and the idea of putting away bad guys was pretty appealing to me. I took law-related classes in undergrad and what started out as an unquestioned assumption became a more confirmed path.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
“When I was growing up, issues with race were something to just be overcome.”
I grew up in southeastern Virginia and I was one of very few Indian people. It’s a military area so it’s diverse in some ways, but it’s also Southern and I felt like I grew up without people really knowing or understanding my culture. It’s also a very historic area so people associated being “Indian” with all these other things. In fact, I wrote an essay called “How Christopher Columbus Ruined My Life”. Despite this, I never felt oppressed. It mostly just felt like people didn’t understand my background. There are a lot of aspects of the south that I really love so when I went up north for school I felt like I needed to defend it when people were disparaging. It’s a place and a time in my life that I really hold dearly. Now, in the south, and across the country, there are a lot of issues in law enforcement about race and I feel like I straddle these two worlds where I’m a person of color but I’ve also been trained in law enforcement so I understand that perspective as well.
What has been your biggest professional challenge so far?
“I think there is a whole different level of competence and sense of accomplishment that you feel when you achieve something purely physical,”
The FBI for sure because I was going into a whole new world. Before then I had always been in spaces where I was tested and rewarded on what I know. There were definitely academics at Quantico, but a lot of it was physical strength and that was something I hadn’t really been tested on. I failed my first physical fitness test at Quantico very spectacularly, so it was a real wake-up call for me. I didn’t know if I belonged there and I didn’t have a lot of support either. My parents thought I was crazy and most of my law school classmates, although supportive, also thought I was crazy. I was turning down six-figure salaries from law firms to go carry a gun! I had a come to Jesus moment with myself like, “Am I going to take this huge risk where I might fail again?” I stuck with it and I feel like that was really foundational and transformative for a lot of other things in my life.
How did the conversation go with your parents when you told them you’re joining the FBI?
“I’m going to join the FBI.” I didn’t really ask permission! I was the younger daughter, so I got the more permissible end of the parenting spectrum. I also think they knew I was going to do what I wanted. Later they’d have these agonized conversations with my uncles and aunts like “She doesn’t listen to us” and “She could be making so much money at a law firm” so that’s how I knew they weren’t particularly psyched about it. They did come around though; It was once they started telling others I was in the FBI and people reacted like “Whoa, that’s really cool.”
Can you describe a moment where you felt most proud of yourself?
I think the physical training ordeal at Quantico is probably up there. I didn’t just pass- I rocked it and really trained. I improved more than what anybody ever expected. That was doubly an accomplishment because part of why I failed the first time was I had been in a car accident a week before I went to Quantico. I think there is a whole different level of competence and sense of accomplishment that you feel when you achieve something purely physical, and I don’t know if everybody gets a chance to experience that. I totally trained my body and I did something that I literally could not do six weeks prior. The other moment is also weirdly physical – giving birth! I thought I was going to die, so when a child emerged and I was still alive, I was pretty impressed with myself.
Has race influenced the way that you’ve approached your career?
No, and I think about that a lot because it’s so dominant in discussions today. When I was growing up, issues with race were something to just be overcome. People are going to be racist, so we deal with it. But, it never influenced my choice to do or not do something. In fact, I feel like my background enhanced my professional career, at least in the FBI post-9/11. The FBI really needed people who could go and talk to certain communities to connect with them and tall white guys in crew cuts aren’t always the best for that.
If you could go back, what would you tell your 18-year-old self?
I probably would tell myself to be more generous with others. I was very opinionated at 18, and it served me well in the sense that I didn’t wallow in a lot of self-doubt about my choices and decisions. However, I think that certainty also extended to my beliefs. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate how people come from different experiences and have different perspectives. I now understand the importance of being generous with people and giving them the space to come to their own conclusions, even if you disagree with them.
Can you name a woman in another industry you admire?
I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and I loved it. One of the things I really like about her is that she acknowledges the importance of male mentors and it makes sense when you think about it. Where women are succeeding are often in areas where there haven’t been a lot of women before. It would be tough to make it without the support and mentorship of the senior men in those industries. It made me reflect on how that has played out in my own life and also just how many people have been influential in shaping me.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
I have a lot! A petty pet peeve of mine is that I really get annoyed with how it’s now the norm to give a standing ovation at the end of a play. Isn’t that supposed to be special? I was a theater person so I kind of resent that! Even if it was a really good play, maybe not every person deserves a standing ovation.
Another big pet peeve is when people are not being authentic and you’re unable to get a sense of who they are because they’re not willing to take a stand anywhere. I think it’s important to be self reflective enough to have a position, have something to say, and to own your decisions and choices. When people don’t do that, particularly when they’re projecting blame onto others for choices they’ve made, it’s a huge annoyance to me. I think this is why Sheryl Sandberg’s book was so controversial; some of what she was saying was to take responsibility for your own choices. I think people understood that to somehow be denying structural sexism, but personal lack of agency and structural sexism can both exist. It bothers me when lack of agency isn’t acknowledged because that leaves no room for self growth.
What are some things you do that help you to de-stress or relax?
As far as hobbies, I’ve picked up golf in the last few years, I like karaoke, I go skiing with my kids, I work out, and I get massages. I think self care is really important, so I have self-care days. Today, I got a manicure and pedicure and I’ll pour myself a glass of wine when it’s a respectable hour.
What’s the last great book you read? Why was it great?
I read this a while ago but I remember The Invention of Wings really striking me. It’s a historical fiction about two sisters in the south, the Grimke sisters, who became the first leaders of the first feminist movement. They became abolitionists even though they were born into this wealthy slave family, and the book had this incredibly rich history. I had never heard of them, and I was like, “Why didn’t I ever learn about these women in school?”
Another book I remember haunting me was Station Eleven which is a science fiction where a pandemic flu spreads and kills 95 percent of Earth’s population, forcing people to go back to a primitive way of life. The book features this traveling theater group performing Shakespeare, so it showcases the enduring nature and universality of art and theater. While reading it, I realized that lawyers are completely useless in a post-apocalyptic world! Also, it was interesting because in this post-apocalyptic world gadgets, like phones and computers, don’t work and they end up in this museum. It’s interesting to think that what we now rely on so much ultimately isn’t essential for our survival. The book was thought provoking on a lot of levels, but also creepy.
Is there any advice you’d give to young South Asian woman starting in the law industry?
“I think it’s important to be self reflective enough to have a position, have something to say, and to own your decisions and choices.”
I’d say take risks. I think the legal field is very risk averse; lawyers think of all the ways things can go wrong and how to protect against it so they’re naturally risk averse to some degree. Coming out of law school, it can be very easy to go with the grain and do what everybody says you should do. I think it’s a really important time because you have this amazing set of skills to put to use. The Trump administration is a great showcase for that. Every big thing that has happened in this administration that’s actually been effective has come through legal challenges. Law is an area where people should take risks. At the risk of being stereotypical, I think that for South Asian women in particular, we’re almost conditioned to conform to expectations and it’s worth being more conscious of your choices when you go into this field.
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