Best of Both Worlds: My Journey to the AIF Clinton Fellowship

As a child, I watched Khabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham every night. I memorized Hrithrik Roshan’s dance moves to You Are My Soniya and cried every time Shah Rukh Khan reunited with his mother. However, when asked, Lion King was my favorite movie. It wasn’t. 

Photo of Nithya as a young girl wearing a kurta and posing in front of the Taj Mahal.
It took my mother two hours to get me to wear Indian clothes.

Every summer, my family and I would visit our family members in India, and my mother took these opportunities to teach my brother and I about our culture, meaning visits to historical landmarks and museums. I dreaded these trips because I never connected with my Indian heritage. Anyone could see that I wasn’t a true Indian, even though I looked Indian. I stood out so much when all I wanted to do was fit in. People constantly stared and commented “what is she?” It took me years to undo the impact of those remarks. Sometimes, even now, those comments still negatively affect me to the point where all I want to do is disappear. 

Growing up, I had two lives, an American one and an Indian one. Ashamed of my heritage, I wanted to be a true American in America. I despised myself and my skin color. Mainly, I hated the shame I felt whenever I was reminded that I was an Indian. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to admit I wanted to be anything but myself. 

As a teenager, I never reflected on my identity, instead choosing to spend my energy on other things. But in college, I began to confront my feelings of shame surrounding my identity. Initially, I was supposed to study abroad in El Salvador during the summer of 2016, but due to the rising gang violence in the region, my destination unexpectedly became India. I participated in the SIT Study Abroad summer program Traditional Medicine and Healthcare Practices. Though based in Delhi, we traveled to Rishikesh, Palampur, Nainatal, and Dharamshala to examine the impact of modernization and globalization on healthcare across India.

Photo of Nithya and three female friends on an overnight train, smiling into the camera.
Now, riding overnight trains is a passion of mine.

Despite initially holding an indifferent attitude, I found myself infatuated with India during that summer. Things that normally earned an eye roll from me suddenly became fascinating and intriguing. I began to appreciate the differences between India and America, intentionally immersing myself in my Indian heritage. I suddenly found myself wanting to learn more about the culture and history. When I left India, I yearned to return.

The following summer, I did return, not as a student but as a research fellow. I was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship (GSBF) from Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University in 2017. This fellowship combined a fully-funded summer field experience in the developing world with two quarters of academically rigorous research. My partner and I conducted a research project to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for organizations within the development sector. We conducted interviews with the end-users in Gujarat, Bihar, and Assam for eight weeks as we visited five different client organizations within the agriculture, finance, and civic engagement sectors. 

Photo of Nithya handing a tablet to an Indian woman sitting on a chair outside, explaining something.
A typical day in the field in 2017.
Photo of Nithya posing with an Indian woman with another student from the U.S.
Asha Devi: One of the many who inspired me last year.

Before study abroad, I firmly identified as an American. However, upon my return, it felt wrong to say I’m an American. I felt a new connection to India, but not strong enough for me to identify as an Indian-American. Even so, my time with Awaaz.De allowed me to witness a group of passionate individuals working to right the social wrongs in India. My conversations with people, from those up high in the corporate world to the farmers in rural Assam, played an integral role in me embracing and celebrating my identity. Now, I proudly identify as an Indian-American as I am no longer that same girl who asserts that Lion King is her favorite childhood movie.

My senior year of college was filled with fun memories with occasional bursts of anxiety over my future. I didn’t know, and still don’t know, what my career will look like. After reflecting on my experience with GSBF, I realized that I felt a strong connection to India and a desire to dedicate my life to serving others. I saw a career for myself in India, specifically in the development sector. Even though I can’t fully explain why, I want to make India a better place for all of its residents. My time with the Miller Center and Awaaz.De eventually led me on a path to the AIF Clinton Fellowship, which I am forever grateful for.

Photo of Nithya with five other people, posing in front of a poster exhibit.
At our final presentation for GSBF.

It’s been a journey to accept my identity: a good, bad, and ugly one. I appreciate both cultures for what they are and their influence on me. I used to think that India had to be more like the U.S., but that is not true at all. Indians can learn from Americans, and Americans can learn from Indians; because I am both, I can play a special role in this knowledge exchange.

Photo of a female colleague of Nithya's, sitting cross-legged in front of a lit red candle, appearing to reflect or pray.
One of my responsibilities is capturing moments like these.

This Fellowship will be an intensive personal and professional journey for me. Curious to see how my identity will affect my work, I’m excited for my role at my host organization, Prajwala Sangham, especially as a foreigner who can understand the local language. A project within the larger umbrella organization Chindu, Prajwala Sangham uses theater and art to empower women police constables, women prisoners, and other women and girls in the community. Their approach is holistic and focuses on topics like identity, leadership, gender, safety, and health. Started as a cultural resource center, Chindu is a non-profit organization that promotes capacity building. With more than 15 years of experience, the team leads reflective learning processes for the personal development of leaders, managers, and disadvantaged communities (e.g. women, children, and Dalits) through the medium of art and theater. Though most activities are based in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, programs have extended all over India and even internationally (South Africa, UK, Germany, and many more). My specific work at Prajwala Sangham will focus on two main areas: communications and business development. 

After four weeks at Prajwala Sangham, I realized two things: what a blessing it is for me to understand and speak Telugu, and the importance of being flexible. I’ve been to multiple workshops with the facilitation team, and my Telugu skills make everything easier for everyone. The facilitation team doesn’t have to take the time nor the effort to translate everything for me, so they can focus all their energy on the workshops and the participants. In addition, the participants are usually incredibly shy around me, but once they realize that I can communicate with them in Telugu, all hell breaks loose as they bombard me with questions ranging from “Is there rice in America?” to “How are you so tall?” Almost always, the beneficiaries have the biggest smiles on their faces after the facilitation team brings everyone’s attention back to the activity. 

Photo of Nithya teaching something to eight school girls, who are smiling at her and looking attentively while holding a paper in their hands.
Helping the girls practice their English pronunciation at one of our workshops.

Additionally, after my last fellowship, I learned how important flexibility in the field is. Now that importance has snowballed as I realize that structure associated with what I’d considered a typical workplace, was as uncommon to Prajwala Sangham as not having a chai break everyday. For instance, during the week of October 8th to the 12th, I attended a wellness workshop that the deputy inspector general of the Telangana Prisons invited me to. Was this a part of my intended project? Not originally, but that experience was beneficial in terms of the new connections within the prison department and the learnings from the workshop that we can incorporate into our own methodologies. 

When I scanned the photos of the other Fellows for the first time before we all met for Orientation in Delhi, I immediately noticed that I was the only Indian-American in this cohort. Whether that distinction is a good or bad thing, I don’t know, but my experience will be unique. I don’t know what these next nine months hold for me, but I can ensure you that I will eat a ton of Hyderabad biryani and take many selfies with baby goats.

Close-up photo of Nithya holding a white baby goat, one of the goat's ears brushing Nithya's nose.
Expect many more selfies like this one!

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Nithya graduated from Santa Clara University (SCU) in 2018 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychology. While at SCU, she was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Nithya and her research partner conducted action research to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for other organizations in the development sector. They travelled to three Indian states, visited over 20 communities, and conducted 55 interviews over the span of two months. With that research, they developed social impact case studies detailing how clients use Awaaz.De's services, prepared recommendations to Awaaz.De, and created a mobile social impact assessment framework. Thrilled to return back to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Nithya can’t wait to return to Hyderabad, hone her Telugu speaking skills, and reconnect with family. In her spare time, she loves watching the Golden State Warriors, petting baby goats, and mastering the art of making dosas.

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