20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: Vikas Mehta

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-one 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.

 

Ever since he was young, Vikas’s grandfather has been a massive inspiration to him. Vikas’s grandfather used to work for Siemens in India, and it was only after he retired that he started working with cancer screening. Eventually, he developed what was essentially a mobile screening unit in Delhi; they would scan patients from various socioeconomic backgrounds and identify concerns. However, they soon realized that there was a much bigger problem: even when patients’ cancers were identified, they had no way to go. Private hospitals were too expensive, public hospitals were overrun. The mobile unit then evolved into fundraising, which evolved into the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital in New Delhi; it is now Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre, one of the largest cancer treatment centers in all of Asia. 

Coming from this legacy, Vikas’s parents also worked to cultivate an atmosphere in which giving back was a natural and normal part of their lives. “They instilled the idea that beyond a certain point, material things aren’t going to improve your happiness. The best thing you can do is give and give back,” Vikas recounts. 

Vikas Mehta was raised in Bakersfield, California––then a small city, now a larger one with around 400,000 people. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and knew with certainty that he wanted to go to medical school. But at the end of his college life, he found himself thinking that he “wanted to take a year to try something new, get off the treadmill of life and gain some more broad world experience.”

This is around the time the AIF Fellowship crossed Vikas’s radar, and it stuck out to him. Vikas’s family is from Punjab; his father grew up in Mumbai and his mother in Delhi, so they went back to India every two years. But every time he went back, he recalls, he saw a very specific version of India. Even if his family wasn’t particularly wealthy, he could still observe the stark income disparity that existed. The fellowship, for Vikas, was an ability to see the reality of most Indians’ lives.

When Vikas was first placed in Bhuj, he was in an extremely remote area. Working in the health-related field, for the first few weeks, he was helping a person go from village to village and conduct physical therapy. Vikas’s role was (a) to help with the therapy, and (b) build and distribute crutches. He reflects, “They were really basic crutches, too: just wooden crutches put together with screws. It was particularly insightful for me to compare it to the U.S. and think that someone could just go to Walgreens and buy a pair for $10, but there they were such a scarce resource.” It was not what he expected to be doing, and out of that came a crucial lesson: oftentimes what we think we’re going to do might not even be the most important things that the people need. Creating change, particularly within spaces of social development, needs to be rooted in acknowledging and addressing people’s issues––not the perception of what these issues are, which from the perspective of an outsider, risk being subjective and superficial. However, being in that space was a challenge: “Seeing the devastation of the earthquake on, say, television and what it looks like on a practical level is very different.” Vikas’s personal health declined in those few weeks––he was continuously ill and losing weight rapidly––so AIF decided to relocate him to a more central area of Bhuj, where he worked with Kimberly Parekh.

Kimberly and Vikas worked in a Jain school, and both were involved in slightly different things. Vikas was involved in helping them build a website, as well as teaching English to the teachers. What particularly stood out to him, even now, was the Jain mentality. He remembers fondly, “The people kept the cloth over their heads and faces religiously so they didn’t inhale anything. It was really beautiful to see in practice the kindness and gentleness with which they approached life and service––and it showed especially in the way the school was run.” 

Living in rural Gujarat, especially post the disastrous earthquake of 2001, was an especially unique experience for Vikas––as it would be for most people, including most Indians who live in metropolitan areas and environments. “It gave me a ton of insight and information into how diverse environments can be in India; that rural experience was so unique because it was not the way you see India anywhere unless maybe if you’re driving by it.”

After the AIF Fellowship, Vikas came back to the United States and joined the Ameri-Corps, which is the domestic branch of the Peace Corps and functions under the National Community Corps (NCC). Within the Ameri-Corps, Vikas worked on various projects. In teams of 10–12 people, each group was assigned a state radius and a project. Every 1–2 months, they would change regions and projects. Over ten months, Vikas worked on projects that tackled all kinds of topics ranging from housing to education, from the environment to health. 

Comparing the two experiences, Vikas mentioned that the Ameri-Corps projects were highly organized, particularly because they weren’t immediate responses in disaster situations. Furthermore, because they were so specific, they could be staffed by newly graduated college students without any obvious or discernible skill set. The idea of a specific skill set came up often in our conversation, and it is a topic that Vikas was keen to emphasize. 

His first few weeks at AIF taught him how challenging it is to do sustainability and service work, especially when one needs to be flexible. Vikas pointed out that “if you don’t have a discernible skill, it’s hard to be helpful. Just showing up and saying, ‘I’m here to help,’ is only so helpful; having people with clear cut skills is definitely more useful than just enthusiasm.” By that, he doesn’t mean at all that you cannot get involved or volunteer without a niche skillset, but that we all must have the humility to admit that you are not always going to be particularly helpful. For example, with a medical mission trip, you can go and perform an operation and remove—for example––a thyroid, but you can’t guarantee full recovery or that they will have access to all the necessary medication. 

He put it very articulately, saying, “The fact of the matter is that these people have lived in these settings for as long as they have. You’re not going to come into these settings with answers that they haven’t thought of. The situation has to be well-thought-out, in that you need to get a sense of what the needs are, what the people want, and take into consideration the cultural and socioeconomic impacts of your presence.” A big part of being in these spaces and understanding how difficult it is to make a tangible impact in such situations, and it’s crucial to approach everything with a great degree of humility. 

However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t all have our own reasons for being in such spaces, and according to Vikas, recognizing that those are not trivial is also essential to the work we do. For example, one of Vikas’s reasons for being part of the AIF Fellowship was to be able to go back to his home country and give back. However, his work included an emotional element he was not expecting: “Working in India was a much more emotional experience for me; even if it’s your skin tone or skin color, seeing people from the same background as you made it more emotionally challenging than I thought it would be. It becomes very apparent when you’re there that you aren’t special––it’s just my circumstances happen to be such that I am privileged.” This ties back to his earlier point: we and the people we are working with are likely to have similar capabilities, but different experiences in applying them––and neither is more or less valid!

Overall, Vikas highlighted his time with AIF as being heavily impactful in some of the decisions regarding the areas he wanted to work in––particularly focusing him and providing the practical experience to work with underserved communities. After his year off, he went to the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. He entered medical school knowing he wanted to work with cancer patients. The plan was to do his residency in New York City, studying ENT (ear-nose-throat), and then specialize in cancer; he eventually landed up doing his fellowship in Louisiana, one of the most underserved areas in the country, a location to which people traveled from over the state––up to 3,000–4,000 miles––to get quality care. Thinking about this, Vikas said, “Both areas where I’ve practiced medicine have been underserved areas. My wife used to say, ‘You’re working as a surgeon, we’re doing a medical mission every day.’ That was when I realized that it’s important and helpful to affect one person at a time, but it’s also crucial to have a broader view of things and tackle problems from a public health point of view.” This inspired him to get his Master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. 

Vikas now practices as a head, neck, and cancer surgeon, and is currently the vice-chair of his department at Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx in New York City––one of the poorest zip codes in the country. The area houses various underserved populations, and most of their cancer patients also come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. As a quality improvement officer, a large part of Vikas’ work involves analyzing patient outcomes and identifying reasons for care being delayed, and from that, finding ways to deliver care more efficiently––including both time and quality of care. Talking about this, he mentions, “We have to stop just talking about the disparities that exist and start doing; we need to truly investigate not only ways to carry it out, but also publish on it and generalize it so other institutions and regions can adopt the same system and adapt it to best fit their models.”

Reflecting on his time so far––with AIF and professional––Vikas had a few pieces of advice to AIF’s current fellow and those looking to apply. Firstly, he commends AIF on evolving and learning from their cohort and every cohort after them. To the fellows, he says, “Don’t go in with the expectation that it’s going to be all rainbows and butterflies, because it’s not. Firstly, always approach the work knowing that the most important thing you’re going to get out of it is going to benefit you. And because of that, approach the whole experience with a lot of humility, a lot of understanding that you are here to learn just as much as––if not more so––you are going to help. Entering the space with that open mindset will put you in a better starting position, because only then can you engage the stakeholders: What do they need? How would they solve the problem?” 

 

We thank Vikas for his time and wish him the best of luck in his 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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