When I found out I was accepted to the AIF Clinton Fellowship last year, I knew that professionally it was the right decision for me. But on a personal level, it took a lot more thought before I felt comfortable spending ten months away from everyone I knew. I had spent time away before – a summer in Washington D.C. in college, and a summer in Oslo, Norway, after graduation – but I had lived in the same city (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) for almost 5 years when I had first started the application process. With my parents and hometown only a “short” 3-hour drive away, and a solid friend group, I knew it would be difficult to leave that support network behind if I decided to pursue the fellowship.
Adding to my hesitation was the fact that I had recently gotten married, and spending 10 months away from my husband was definitely not in the “pro” column of the pros and cons list of accepting the fellowship. But by the time I finally received my project placement and had to make a decision, my family, friends, and especially my husband, were on board.
I was thankful that I had that support back home, because the first month of the Fellowship I often wondered to myself if I had made a mistake. I felt like I stuck out all the time, never did anything correctly, and felt alone, even when I was surrounded by people. But as I started to learn the cultural norms, basic Tamil, and (most importantly) everyone’s names, I began to feel more comfortable. By the time David, my husband, came for a visit in December, I was even able to navigate the local bus system and handle transactions at the market!
But even more than being able to get myself around, I started to feel like I had a support system in India. Living at the school with the students, I began to feel like I had 50 little brothers and sisters. Not constrained to working hours, my relationships with the students expanded beyond what I had experienced in previous work environments. Yes, I led garden classes and when I was the teacher, I was addressed as “Tess Miss,” the form of address they use for all the female teachers. But once 5pm hit and it was free time, or we were playing chess on the weekends, I was often addressed as “Tess Akka”- (rough translation: Big Sister Tess).
This was partly due to my willingness to play silly games with the smaller kids, or help the older students with their homework or email, but also because I made an effort to connect with them outside of the classroom, and even outside of the school. Over Diwali and summer break in May, when all of the children went home, I was invited to come to their homes in the villages and meet their families. Even though all of the students’ parents spoke no English, and I speak virtually no Tamil, showing up and making the effort made all the difference to the students and their families. And the constant engagement with the students made sure I never felt lonely!
And it wasn’t just the students- building relationships with the other school staff was just as important in making me feel connected, supported, and valued at school. Getting invited to weddings, engagements, festivals, and meals in my coworkers’ homes forged a connection that couldn’t be made just in a work environment. But it took time, and a willingness to look silly or make a mistake; I tried to put on my own sari at least 15 times, and every time the kitchen staff would fix it for me because I (obviously) did some part of it wrong. But when I finally got it right on my own, we all celebrated. I couldn’t have a full conversation with them, but I never would have learned how to put on a sari without their help (or had the courage to wear one without their obvious excitement when I would wear one). Making the effort, even though I made mistakes, helped us bond despite the language barriers in our relationship.
During one of my last meals at the school before I left, one of the staff asked everyone to say one word that would describe KKG best in their eyes. I realized that I didn’t even have to think about my answer. When I think about the school, my word is “family.” I was embraced fully in that environment, even as an outsider, and despite my initial discomfort and confusion, I felt at home by the time I left. The kitchen staff knew my favorite dishes and made sure I got a taste of idli and peanut chutney before I left; the students sang me a beautiful song full of nonsense words on my last night; everyone gathered around the car as I was leaving to wave (and scream) goodbye. It was beautiful chaos – just like any other family.
Saying goodbye to my friends and family in September was hard, but what surprised me was that I found saying goodbye to my new family in June equally challenging. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that leaving someplace for a finite time (like 10 months) makes the separation a little bit easier – there’s an end date, something you can count down and get excited about. Leaving a place that comes to feel like home with no real understanding of when, or even if, you would return makes the goodbyes that much more challenging. But the best part of family is knowing that however long it is between visits, they will always welcome you with open arms when you see them again.