Fellowship Closing Seminar 2021: 20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead

This year’s Closing Seminar and Graduation Ceremony of the 2020-21 AIF cohort was held on Friday, July 30th. Celebrating 20 Years of “Serve-Learn-Lead” and graduating the final batch of AIF Clinton Fellows before the program’s transition into the next phase as AIF’s Banyan Impact Fellowship program called for a special celebration.

Centering the work of the Fellows, this was an opportunity to celebrate all the amazing work they had accomplished in the past year, and recognizing the resilience needed during another unusual year. A breathtaking 414 guests joined us live from across the world to celebrate this historic moment together!

There was a great amount of effort put into making the seminar very accessible, with there being Indian Sign Language (ISL) interpreters present throughout the session, as well as a live transcript available throughout the session to ensure any individual with audio or visual impairment could participate.

The closing seminar was moderated by two alumni from the AIF Fellowship Program: Noel Benno Joseph (2016-17) and Falak Choksi (2015-16). They began the session by introducing themselves, and then introduced Nishant Pandey, CEO of AIF and Mathew Joseph, Country Director of AIF, to provide the welcome remarks.

Welcome by AIF: Service during COVID-19

Nishant Pandey (CEO, AIF) [bottom left] delivers the opening remarks as MCs Noel Benno (AIF Fellowship Cohort 2016-17) [top left] and Falak Choksi (AIF Fellowship Cohort 2015-16) [top right] watch on, alongside the ISL interpreter [bottom right].
Mr. Pandey in his speech talked about the remarkable work the Fellows had done and how they had all shown “resilience, determination and the commitment to service” in the past year. He affirmed how the fellowship program was a testament to AIF’s mission of helping the most vulnerable while strengthening US-India ties: “Young people like them will continue to play a crucial role as we come together to support the most vulnerable and those hit most severely by what many people are calling as a once-in-a-century crisis, not just for now but for many years to come.” Looking into the future, Mr. Pandey shared how AIF secured funding for the next 10 years of the fellowship program, which is being rebranded into its next avatar, the Banyan Impact Fellowship. He also spoke of the development work AIF is conducting outside of the fellowship, speaking in particular about the COVID-19 response, through which AIF served over 500,000 migrant workers, helped build 51 oxygen plants and started a vaccination campaign.

Mr. Joseph in his speech discussed the work done by the Fellows in greater detail, talking about the unique challenges this year’s cohort had to navigate during their work. He emphasized how COVID-19 had fundamentally altered the way the cohort was structured and conducted, and how each Fellow had to design their own new protocols while working with their host organizations. He talked about how the Fellows say this year as a “challenge to overcome and each of the issues they have come across over the past several months, were things they never must have expected or known how to handle, and yet they innovated and have dared to do things that they have done.”

Looking Back on 20 Years of Service, and the Path Forward

Diving deeper into the program’s next phase, a video message from Lata Krishnan, Co-Chair of AIF’s Board of Directors and Founding President of AIF, and Ajay Shah, Co-Chair of AIF’s Fellowship program, was played. The couple talked about the founding mission of AIF, how the Fellows had helped extend that in this extraordinary year and the future of the Fellowship program, to which they themselves have donated generously. At the core of their message was the importance of the development work the Fellows and AIF does, and the continued relevance for such work especially after the pandemic.

Lata Krishnan (Co-Chair of AIF’s Board of Directors and Founding President of AIF) [left] & Ajay Shah (Co-Chair of AIF’s Fellowship program) [right] talk about the 20-year history of AIF and the path forward for the organization.
As Mr. Shah concluded:

“[W]hile we are not totally out of the woods yet, we are definitely on the road to recovery. As we rebuild, we must strive to make a world that is different from the one before. The new normal should be one that is more equitable, more collaborative and more humane. Our Fellows know this. They have strived to create such a world for the last twenty years through their service. Their stories serve as inspiration to us all.”

Keynote Speech: US & India during a Time of Transformation

Next, Chandni Wadhwani, Senior Program Manager for the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program, gave a review of the Fellowship Program for the last year, recognizing all the work the Fellows have done. She talked about how the decision to hold the Fellowship virtually was one that required tremendous deliberation among the team. In the end, they decided to go ahead and that turned out to be absolutely the right decision as the Fellows put any doubts to rest and forged ahead. They maintained their spirit of service through all the challenges they faced, and despite never having met physically, came together as a team and constantly helped each other navigate the challenges in front of them. Talking about the program, from the Fellowship team’s perspective she said: “What started out  like a challenging trajectory, ended up taking a beautiful albeit new shape. While the Fellows strived, the Fellowship team used this time to reimagine elements of the program. Thanks to the virtual pivot, we could expand the scope of our conferences considerably by engaging speakers and guest subject matter experts from across the globe, including being able to share our fellows’ journey with audiences such as you all, which might not have been possible in an in-person set up.”

Keynote Speaker Greg Pardo (Political Officer, Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State) [left] delivers the opening remarks with Chandni Wadhwani (Senior Program Manager, AIF Clinton Fellowship Program) [right] moderating.
Ms. Wadhwani then introduced the keynote speaker for the event: Greg Pardo who is a Political Officer at the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Mr. Pardo gave his speech about US-India collaboration, beginning his speech by recounting his own experience of having worked in India at the Kolkata Embassy. He told the audience about how he found another home in India, and fell in love with the culture and people, something that he carries till date. He spoke of how organizations like AIF serve as critical ties between the Indian diaspora, particularly within the US, and the Indian population. Speaking of the link between the two countries, he said:

“[I]f anything, yes, Washington D.C. and New Delhi will always be linked. San Francisco and Bangalore will always have ties. But think beyond these cities. What are folks in Chennai and San Antonio doing regarding research on water issues? What are universities in the state of Indiana doing with partners in West Bengal regarding energy issues? What are students in Fort Worth, Texas doing research on to help civil society activists in UP and Bihar counter human trafficking? This is where you can serve as a tie, a link.”

After his speech, Mr. Pardo took a few questions from the audience, talking in more detail about his time in India, how it influenced him and his views on the current relationship between the US and India.

Greg holding a cricket bat up into the camera, while he shares a good laugh with Chandni and the interpreter.
Greg Pardo lifts the mystery behind the cricket bat in his office, at the request of audience members, during the Q&A.
Publication Launch

Next, it was time to unveil this year’s publications! Three publications arising from the 2020-21 Fellowship year were launched by three alumni from the Fellowship Program, who also served as peer mentors to the 2020-21 cohort.

Tali Datskovsky, who served as a Fellow in 2016-17, launched the “People-Powered Partnerships Vol. 4 – Interconnectedness in the Development Sector.” This year’s volume explores the question: how can we achieve a truly equitable COVID-19 recovery? Inspired by Fellows’ service, the volume offers interdisciplinary solutions to resolve the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, and offers models how health, education, and other sectors must collaborate to bring forth the most effective models.

The three publications that were authored by the Fellows this year. Top left: Collection of short stories titled “The Adventures of Jugaadu Jaadu”. Top right: A collection of the Fellows’ experiences and how they first-hand experienced the interconnectedness between issues in the development field. Bottom: The annual Yearbook, providing an overview of all the work done by the Fellows and the impact they created.

Priya Charry (AIF Fellowship Cohort 2017-18) [bottom left] launches the storybook written by the 2020-21 Fellowship Cohort, “The Adventures of Jugaadu Jaadu.”
Priya Charry, who was a Fellow in 2017-18, launched a creative nonfiction volume authored by the Fellows, for which she created the artworks. “The Adventures of Jugaadu Jaadu” is a collection of short stories written by five of the Fellows. Inspired by the works of R.K. Narayan and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the book chronicles the journey of “Jaadu,” using humor and storytelling to explore the myriad of cultures represented in India and how one has to navigate these cultural nuances, mirroring the journey the Fellows themselves undertook. It explores the unique challenges posed by the pandemic and takes readers on a magical journey of imagination.

Nikhil Mahen, who served as a Fellow in 2013-14, launched the “2020-21 Fellowship Yearbook“, which chronicles the service journeys of the Fellows and the AIF partner organizations they served with. It’s a compelling read that focuses on the program’s impact on all who partake in it with stories, images and achievements.

20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: From 2001 Alumni to 2021 Fellows

After launching the publications, in celebration of 20 years of the AIF Fellowship Program, two Fellows of the inaugural AIF cohort in 2001 were invited to talk about their experiences and how the Fellowship experience has shaped their lives over 20 years. The two members who came to speak were Rachna Mathur and Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal. Rachna had served with the Digital Equalizer initiative in Bangalore back in 2001, while Meenakshi had served with Kala Raksha in Bhuj, Gujarat. During their conversation, Ms. Mathur and Ms. Verma-Agrawal talked about the most powerful thing that the AIF Fellowship did for them. For Ms. Mathur, AIF served as a “catalyst for a path that would eventually lead me back to a life of service in education”, and for Ms. Verma-Agrawal it “create[d] a bridge for the beginning of my work in India.”

Rachna Mathur (AIF Fellowship Cohort 2001) [top right] and Meenakshi Verma-Agarwal (AIF Fellowship Cohort 2001) [bottom] talk about their experience as part of AIF’s inaugural Fellowship Cohort.
They talked about their experience while serving in 2001, and reflected that while there were a lot of resources sent to the region initially, “within a few months, aid workers are gone, leaving the economy in shambles.” Reminiscing about the lessons learned from that summer, Ms. Mathur shared that it was the “importance of establishing relationships, listening and understanding local educational circumstances and difficulties, learning that a one-size-fits-all solution does not work, and most importantly […] that without a focused effort on support after agencies leave, the work done can just fizzle away.” Towards the end of their conversation, they shared some pictures from their Fellowship year, as well as some pictures from their lives currently.

Top Left: Rachna shares her passion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) with children and their families. Top Right: Meenakshi hanging out with the women from her host community during her Fellowship. Bottom Left: A picture from the 2001 Fellowship Cohort’s debrief in Delhi. Bottom Right: Meenakshi with her co-Fellows Tanvi Pandit and Nisha Vohra in Shimrasar Sheikh, Gujarat in 2001.

Crossing the bridge between the 2001 and the 2021 cohort, two representatives from the graduating class performed spoken word. Incorporating poetry composed by the 11 Fellows serving this year, Mehar Jauhar and Trishla Bafna, recited their collective journey. The poems were beautifully written, and deeply expressive, highlighting the full gamut of experiences the Fellows faced during their year of service.

“I am becoming braver in my pursuit of compassion and perseverance to find peace in suffering of war – peace and recovery from conflict that activates the unconditional truth of the equality of being and the harmony of the environment. 

With sharing laughter, learnings, moments of unconditional joy and most importantly all the fun meals, I am becoming more confident with my belief in my own abilities, prouder of the strides I have made – all owed to my pillars of reliance – the people who made me their own, my host team at work – in a city unknown. 

My soul dances in endless gratefulness for the constant mentorship, the infinite encouragement and the unconditional support – that I garnered from my humans at work, my humans at home and my own human of resilience. 

I am becoming and I am infinitely willing to serve with a promise of a kinder tomorrow.”

Commencement Remarks & Graduation Ceremony

Paul Glick from the Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST) offered commencement remarks through a pre-recorded video. As a long-time supporter of the AIF Fellowship program, RIST and Mr. Glick offered congratulatory remarks to the graduating class. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Mr. Glick values the opportunity that volunteers are given to go into the field to offer their expertise to grassroots organizations, while also learning new things and absorbing that into their journeys after. While recognizing that not everyone will go into the development sector afterwards, Mr. Glick expressed his hope that each Fellow has taken something valuable from the experience because “it’s something that might even change your life or the path you take for the future.” He applauded Fellows for their service and their dedication: “I know that this last year has been a very difficult one and I do wanna definitely thank you once again for your perseverance. It’s a big risk to be out in the field at this time. And you all were able to overcome that and put your mindset in the fact that you wanted to provide a service to your community, ahead of your own personal safety and that’s a very admirable thing.”

Paul Glick (Executive Director of The Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST)) remarks on the Fellowship Program.

Next, was the moment everyone had been waiting for: the graduation ceremony! The AIF Fellowship Team members, Dr. Katja Kurz, Amanpreet Kaur and Chandni Wadhwani, conducted the graduation ceremony, where every Fellow was virtually awarded their certificate of completion with a loud (virtual) cheers from the audience. Subsequently, Ms. Kaur also delivered a Vote of Thanks, expressing gratitude on the behalf of AIF and the Fellowship Team to every member who had allowed the Fellowship Program to become a reality and participated in its success over the year, including all partners, supporters, funders, and alumni.

Virtual fireworks – congratulations to the 2020-21 AIF Fellows!

In closing, Ms. Kaur voiced her admiration for the cohort: “This year has been a truly unforgettable journey. I am so happy to have worked alongside such 11 brave and resilient Fellows, seen them reflect and grow, and I am excited to watch them go out into the world and continue to make an impact and a difference as the next generation of leaders.”

Dr. Katja Kurz (Program Manager, AIF Clinton Fellowship Program) [bottom left] and Amanpreet Kaur (Program Officer, AIF Clinton Fellowship Program) [bottom right] conduct the graduation ceremony for the Fellows.

With this, the official proceedings were brought to a close, and the participants joined in a virtual Cocktail hour where the audience got to personally meet all the Fellows and get to know more about their work. They were also able to ask any questions they might have. The session was very engaging with Fellows speaking to a number of audience members about their journey over the last ten months. The end of the cocktail hour brought a final close to this year’s Fellowship Program.

AIF invites you to view the recording of the seminar. You can also access the full transcript.

Devang Laddha is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science and Economics. His main area of interest is international development. He's originally from Kolkata and very excited by the work AIF is doing, particularly through the Fellowship program and more recently with COVID-19 relief work. Being from India, he's passionate about learning from and helping people back home. During the summer of 2021, Devang worked as an intern for the AIF Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program to support AIF's 20-year anniversary campaign.

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