On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat Earthquake struck — an enormous tragedy for the state and for India. With the aid of allies, Gujarat would be eventually rebuilt, yet the earthquake had lasting effects on education, health, migration, and livelihoods. It was in these aid efforts that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and United States President Bill Clinton joined forces in mobilizing the Indian diaspora in the US to form the American India Foundation (AIF) in the spring of 2001, with a mission of strengthening the US-India bridge to make a tangible difference on the ground in India.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, AIF launched the AIF Service Corps Fellowship program to offer young people the opportunity to support local communities in post-disaster rebuilding, and to build strong ties between civil society in both countries to foster mutual understanding and long-term collaboration. During the summer of 2001, the inaugural class of Fellows consisted of twenty-one talented individuals who would serve with AIF and its partner organizations in Gujarat and other states that migrants had sought refuge in. These twenty-one pioneers were driven by the spirit of service and their desire to strengthen change in India after an unprecedented disaster. Now, twenty years later, we look back on that first cohort of Fellows — where they’ve been, what they’re doing, and how their time with AIF has stuck with them since.
Unlike its current structure of ten months in the field, the Fellowship’s inaugural term was a three-month experience. Incredibly, for Kimberly Parekh, three months was more than enough time to simultaneously learn and contribute. She brought remarkable fervor, motivation, and dedication to the experience, and she managed to establish three nonformal schools for children of the migrant “Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST)” adivasi communities who worked in Bhuj’s construction sector. What’s more, the project is still active today, twenty years later.
Kimberly’s career in the development and humanitarian work began in her undergraduate and grad programs, but questions of access and equity – specifically “Why do some people have access to things and other people don’t?” – grew from her early trips to visit family in India, where she saw deep socioeconomic inequality. She had questions about the root of privilege – of her own and of the Indian caste and class systems. She wondered if some unsettling realities were based in the fatalistic notions of India’s deep faith systems and how they shaped the “ethos…and what drives people.” Kimberly began exploring these questions during undergrad, at the University of Virginia, and asked these questions in her Foreign Affairs and Religion Studies classes. Much of her time was also volunteering in the surrounding community.
It was in Japan, the year after graduating, where she established that International Education would be her career. Kimberly spent the year teaching English at a high school in Japan, with The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET Program). When she returned to the United States, she began grad school at NYU to delve further into the International Education space.
Kimberly found herself applying for the AIF Service Corps because of a personal tie to Bhuj – her mother’s brother lived there and his family was impacted by the earthquake. She was pursuing her Master’s when the earthquake hit Bhuj. After graduating later that year, she found the Service Corps Fellowship and applied.
“It was a rather benevolent and charitable notion, joining the Fellowship,” she says, “I felt particularly impacted by the earthquake because he was my closest uncle.”
She was placed with Veerayatan – a Jain faith-based nonprofit in Bhuj, matching her own faith – that provided “stop-gap education” for students in the city, as many schools went down because of the earthquake. She noticed that the children of the construction workers, who were part of the adivasi community and considered “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes” (SC/ST) in the Indian Constitution, were not being included in any education initiatives in Bhuj.
“I had always been interested in the issue of equity…and in the first week, I saw those kids and said ‘what about those kids?’ She had realized societal discrimination towards the adivasi community.
Kimberly thinks back to her response to this observation with amusement and affection for her younger self. She remembers an eager, wide-eyed, new development professional, who decided after noticing problems of access, which she had focused on at NYU, to do something about it. She remembers Veerayatan’s reaction to her idea of Project K.I.D.S (Knowledge for Illiterate and Disadvantaged Students), as one of intrigue. So she began the initiative by visiting the communities and talking to parents about enrolling their children. She built the curriculum, found and trained teachers, and launched the initiative – in a matter of two weeks.
As a result, Kimberly gained quite a bit of attention. Two other Fellows, Shruti Haldea and Vikas Mehta, came to Bhuj and joined Veerayatan. At the end of the Fellowship, the founder of the India-wide education nonprofit, The Akanksha Foundation, approached Kimberly and asked her to launch operations in the city of Pune, a few hours from Mumbai. It all propelled her forward from there; in Pune, Kimberly opened nine schools over the course of a year.
Kimberly was piecing together valuable experience on the ground, with various communities. She strove to continue learning about educational models in India and so, after her time with Akanksha, she backpacked across the country to visit different types of schools. She then settled in Ahmedabad, to work with the education nonprofit, Pratham, one of AIF’s implementation partners in the earlier years.
Her career only soared from there. She moved quickly from local contexts to national ones. After India, she managed the largest education program outside of the Afghan government on behalf of the International Rescue Committee, focusing on education for girls, across five provinces in Afghanistan. These community-based schools provided Afghan children the opportunity to education, previously denied or limited by the Taliban.
When she returned to the United States a few years later, she began an Ed.D. program in Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. Her career transitioned to the macro level of the International Education sector, leading her to manage child labor grants at the US Department of Labor. For the past few years, she has consulted for the World Bank, UNICEF, Global Partnership for Education, and Education Cannot Wait on various aspects of education. Currently, she is a Senior Education Advisor for UNICEF, where she focuses on advising the Ministries of Education in the Middle East and North Africa.
The AIF Fellowship’s formative year was also Kimberly’s own. This opportunity, combined with a work ethic and balanced idealism, allowed her to build an absolutely incredible twenty-year career in a field that has been her passion. She credits it all to spending her twenties in the field, learning from local contexts and challenges to tailor educational solutions, with participation from local community members.
To future Fellows and those interested in applying Kimberly has this to say:
“You cannot get to the World Bank and UNICEF without understanding what’s on the ground. Spend time in the field and work with people on issues that you care about. In that vein, stay present and focus. Try to live in the reality of the people you are working with and it will serve you well and you will never go wrong. In the beginning, you are learning. The way that we operate [in the US] is different from there. You have every place to grow and learn, as you do to contribute. [The experience] will teach you so many things that you never knew – be open to that.”
Kimberly has been sent back to India for macro-level, technical projects with the government, on the behalf of US Government, and she also visits close family and friends. She’s no longer involved with Project K.I.D.S., but she acknowledges that even two decades later, there remains a persistent inequity, and it will take many more efforts to ensure that students from the same SC/ST community have access to formal educational opportunities that will prepare them for the formal workforce.
And yet, twenty years later, she still holds that optimistic, “let’s do something about it” attitude that she saw in her younger self. Though her Fellowship experience was incredibly productive, she remembers how personally difficult it was to see how people live in certain conditions. “Where was the collective responsibility?” she had thought after work each day of the Fellowship, and it is a question that she continues to explore today.
She is much better prepared to tackle it, with the technical expertise to move the education systems of entire nations forward. But, the emotional connection that she felt to her work twenty years ago is still evident today. Perhaps it is this connection that sustains her work ethic, despite the difficult realities of the origins of these inequities.
“There is a humanity among all of us. Every single person is united in feelings of love, and joy, and suffering,” she says, and she credits this piece of learning to her time spent with people – in Bhuj, Pune, Kabul, and beyond.