My position as a Clinton Fellow was nine years in the making. While studying abroad in Madurai during the 2003-2004 academic year, I met Dylan and Vimala, two members of AIF’s second cohort of fellows. The program was young and so was I. But, after several dinners with Vimala and Dylan on the rooftop of the Hotel Supreme, I could see that they were gaining a type of professional experience that I craved. I appreciated the rigor of my academic studies and became very involved with my research on the Thirunangai (Tamil Transgender) community. However, while I was attempting to take a more neutral, less biased approach to studying the social and economic challenges that a marginalized population faced, I saw that Vimala and Dylan were using their fellowships to actively implement changes in the lives of people with whom they worked.
Since leaving Madurai in May 2004, I knew I wanted to become a Clinton Fellow at some point in my career. However, academic and professional opportunities kept coming up and year after year I put off the decision to apply. I earned a Fulbright Fellowship in 2005, which allowed me to return to Madurai and continue my research on Thirunangais. In the following years I embarked upon a few stints in corporate America and a Peace Fellowship through the Advocacy Project, which allowed me to work with Dalit journalists and artists in Nepal. I even had the chance to become an educator and mentor as a trip leader through Putney Student Travel. And finally, I decided to go back to school for Anthropology in 2009 at American University. All of these experiences further enhanced my desire to continue learning in both academic and professional settings. In fact, they taught me that so-called academic knowledge and professional knowledge do not have to be mutually exclusive entities. Now, as I reach the latter stages of my PhD program, it’s time for me to prove it.
I am hoping that my experience as a Clinton Fellow will help me cultivate a professional niche in development while building on my experience as an artist, human rights advocate, and scholar. I hope to integrate my knowledge of social theory regarding power, marginality, and socioeconomic exclusion with real life professional goals. But most importantly, I want to help implement sustainable, positive changes in the lives of underserved populations in South India.
As I begin my work with People’s Watch (the same NGO that Dylan worked with in 2003-2004), I understand that I still have much to learn. Though I have a fair amount of experience in Tamil Nadu, I know that I (like any scholar or development professional) will face a series of unexpected challenges and frustrations throughout the next ten months. (And believe me… at this point., ten months seems like a LONG time!)
But I also understand how rare an opportunity like this is. For ten months I will be gaining experience that will inevitably shape my career and my character. For ten months I will be challenged to grow intellectually and emotionally. For ten months I will be able to examine how local and global socioeconomic systems can institute massive inequality. For ten months I can consider and hopefully implement strategies to alleviate the effects of these marginalizing systems in the lives of real people.
Considering that my participation in this fellowship was nine years in the making… perhaps ten months is no time at all.