20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: Tanvi Pandit-Rajani

On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat Earthquake struck––an enormous tragedy for the state and 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.

Tanvi’s Gujarati had hardly been handy before the AIF Fellowship; for the first time, she could use her language for something good, something bigger than herself, by going back to her roots in Gujarat. Tanvi Pandit-Rajani grew up in a small suburb in Dallas, Texas. While her town in many ways was racially diverse, the place where her parents came from, her origins, was unknown. “India was a country few people had heard about at the time. I was often asked where I was ‘from’ or what my background was. When I said I was Indian, the follow-up question was often, ‘What tribe?’”

Growing up, her culture was really important to her, but she had to balance it with her surroundings. Eventually, she learned to navigate and be adaptable, to become a chameleon between the different groups she belonged to. As she put it best, “I was Indian on the weekends, non-Indian during the week.” Her weekend-self included religious and social gatherings with the Indian community, and most importantly, dance––Garba and Raas (dandiya), two styles of Gujarati traditional dance. Tanvi danced competitively, regionally, and nationally, starting at a very young age and continued with it well into university, where she attended the University of Texas in Austin.

Broadly, it was her family visits back to India that prompted her to apply her undergraduate degree in nutrition to global causes. “Global health, at that time, was an emerging field and not one that I had been exposed to. It was not something you could major in in undergrad, it wasn’t an option.” It was a professor she was working with that inspired her to think about applying to Master’s programs in public health, where she could focus on issues like malnourishment in children, particularly in places like India. And lo and behold, the idea stuck. 

Tanvi set out to pursue a Master’s in Public Health, but she had a particular criterion for a graduate school: it had to offer an overseas experience. At Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000, Tanvi had the opportunity to go to Uganda. She lived in a rural village for a few months, working with young people on HIV and pregnancy prevention programming. 2000 was a particularly interesting time to be in Uganda because it was one of the countries most severely impacted by HIV/AIDS, and they lacked access to HIV treatment that other countries did. Tanvi, then, had found herself in a completely unfamiliar and new environment. “I didn’t have any expectations of the trip. Whatever experience I would have, I knew I would grow from it. I met orphans, people who were caregivers in the toughest of situations; it put life into perspective for me. Had the project not ended that summer, I would’ve extended my time for another year and graduated later. Africa is near and dear to my heart; my professional and personal experiences in the region have shaped who I’ve become.” 

The trip to Uganda was the springboard into her professional career. Tanvi came back to Atlanta, graduated, and came upon the opportunity for the AIF Fellowship. She applied and was off to Bhuj almost immediately after earning her Master’s degree. 

Tanvi, Vikas, Meenakshi and Manju riding on a local bus.
The cohort heading from Ahmedabad to Bhuj, the epicenter of the earthquake. Tanvi with her co-fellows Vikas Mehta, Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal, and Manju Sadarangani.

Being a part of a pilot program, Tanvi said, meant that there was a lot of learning happening at the time––for everybody. “For me, I was learning a lot about myself in terms of how Gujaratis in Bhuj perceived me as an American-born Gujarati. They could assess and remark on my caste, based just on the vocabulary I used, and that was a distinction I had not appreciated until that time.”

Going back to her roots was important to Tanvi, especially in the context of disaster relief in an area that already lacked access to natural resources and basic services. They were working in an area that had not seen rain in many years, and she remembers being surrounded by young children, 5 or 6 years old, who were seeing rain for the first time. The earthquake combined with the local climate and conditions, she says, made a tough situation even worse. The area had suffered huge devastation, and loss hung in the air like a heavy blanket; they heard stories of what people experienced during the earthquake––jumping out of windows, tossing children to safety––and it was emotionally harrowing enough to make Tanvi doubt her own strength to work in disaster relief at all; she now has the utmost admiration for those who have made this life-long careers.

Meenakshi, Shruti and Tanvi standing in front of the ruins of buildings.
First days in Bhuj; Tanvi, Shruti Haldea, and Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal going around Bhuj and assessing the aftermath––damage to homes, temples, historical structures.

Tanvi, along with Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal, worked with Kala Raksha, a grassroots social enterprise supporting local artisans––mostly women––with health, and education, and income-generation through locally produced embroideries and patchwork. Tanvi and Meenakshi first focused on understanding the priority needs of the community in the face of such devastation––which included rebuilding schools, health education, and financial management.

Tanvi and Meenakshi pose with three local women, all clad in colorful traditional outfits with embroidery.
Tanvi and Meenakshi with local women from the Rabari tribe, the tribe on which Kala Raksha focused its efforts.
Tanvi posing with 15 young boys and girls outside in the sun, with trees in the background.
Working with the local Muslim community to understand/assess priority needs as part of rebuilding efforts. Schools and healthcare were a top priority.

Working closely with community organizers and health educators, Tanvi and Meenakshi applied their public health background to develop visual health education materials and tools for the program. A part of the fellows’ work was to imbue these women with financial literacy, especially in terms of saving, and an awareness of the kind of financial resources available to them. While they tried to engage men in such discussions, they were delicate topics to tackle.

They also provided reproductive health education––especially for younger women. They focused on family planning, which was not only a part of Tanvi’s background but also an expressed need from local women; fertility awareness was an important topic, especially given unreliable access to modern contraceptives. They also focused on other important topics like water, sanitation, and hygiene––trying to tackle various problems with a holistic approach, focusing on their needs during this tough period.

In the span of one year, Tanvi had worked in two remote villages––in Uganda and India––which gave her comparable yet uniquely distinct experiences. She noted the similarities: both places lacked access to convenient and quality healthcare; the physical infrastructure of schools and health facilities were severely under-resourced in both places, and both communities faced similar challenges with social gender dynamics.

“The big difference in Bhuj was that it was post-disaster rehabilitation work. I had studied and worked from afar on disaster relief, but like most things, there is the reality of it. It’s hard to put into words what we witnessed––not just what was broken, but the resilience of the people we worked with.” As she recounts fondly, the entire experience in Bhuj humbled her, and importantly reinforced her appreciation for the sub-field of public health that works in post-disaster settings. After the AIF Service Corps Fellowship, Tanvi launched her career in family planning and HIV prevention, her interests having been honed in by her experiences overseas.

In the early 2000s, she landed a unique opportunity working in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a Contraceptive Security Advisor, where she worked to ensure reliable, affordable access to contraceptives by bridging challenges of supply and demand; policy and service delivery; and public and private sectors. This experience served as a springboard into a variety of technical, management, and leadership roles at different organizations. “Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that people have reliable, affordable access to basic healthcare as well as the right information to make well-informed decisions. The system challenges are complex. Health systems are fragmented and in many of the countries we work in, they are not particularly efficient when it comes to how products, services, and information are delivered, funded, and monitored. COVID-19, for example, has revealed the important interdependencies when it comes to supply chains, service points, policies, and communication.”

Tanvi adds: “What I enjoy most is the creative problem-solving that we must do to align disparate thinking, processes, policies, funding streams, and information to meet the basic healthcare needs of people – whoever they are, wherever they are. It means active listening and shifting mindsets to do things that are beyond business as usual.” 

It perhaps goes without saying that these themes featured prominently in her work, especially her times in Uganda and India, as she reflects with gratitude: “These early career experiences, living among the local community, taught me a lot about myself, how to adapt, listen, and appreciate the small things.”

Tanvi’s experience with AIF, as she says, has become a part of who she is, as a professional and as a person. Working in a post-disaster context has made her aware of challenges that don’t usually exist. For example, in Bhuj, she talked to married women who were expressing their desire for a certain number of children––or not––and discussed various contraceptive choices and their long-term implications with them. But how do you cultivate the same fertility awareness when no contraception is actually available? While one can dedicate a lifetime to answering such complex questions––as Tanvi has––the answers are often exponentially complex and very specific to the locality in which the issue arises. In this process, Tanvi’s firsthand experiences have been vital, giving her and her colleagues the opportunity to consider different (and often overlooked, local) perspectives about the issues they are working to tackle.

Tanvi holding a young girl in her arms, standing next to Meenakshi, who embraces two children, and left and right of them, adult members of the family with another child.
Tanvi and Meenakshi with a local family supported by Kala Raksha.

In 2014, Tanvi joined John Snow, Inc., a global public health consulting firm, providing technical and strategic direction to a portfolio of country programs, including post-Ebola recovery efforts in Sierra Leone. Today, Tanvi serves in a variety of roles including Private Sector and Health Markets Lead. Thinking back to her time in Bhuj (and Uganda), she reflects, “These are life-changing experiences where you witness first-hand the resiliency of individuals, families, and communities. I am grateful for the AIF Service Corps Fellowship which gave me a unique opportunity to live among and learn from those who we are ultimately working for. And to cherish where I come from more than ever before. I hope that one day my kids will have similar experiences, to understand and appreciate the world beyond our bubble, and unlike my younger self, not to compartmentalize but outwardly embrace our culture and where we come from.”

When asked what advice she would give current or future fellows at AIF, Tanvi said: “Be present in whatever work you’re doing, listen, and really take the time to observe. We are guests in their home. It is our privilege that affords us these opportunities, let us not impose.”

Tanvi resides in the Washington DC area with her husband Sanjay and two children, Kavya and Aarav Rajani. We thank her for her time and willingness to share her story with us, and we wish her the best of luck in all her future endeavors!

Aashana Daru is a second-year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Biological Sciences and minoring in English & Creative Writing and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Born and brought up in Mumbai, India, they are excited to get a chance to celebrate AIF's work by sharing the stories of the people involved.

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