In the spring of 2014, I had the privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Northwestern, my alma mater. I spoke about my story as a South Asian American who was adopted as a child and how returning to India at 18 led me to seek deeper engagement with the country and region of my birth.
I became very involved in learning about South Asia, its cultures, and its societies during my time as an undergraduate student. I began taking classes in Hindi and Urdu, made friends within Northwestern’s large South Asian communities, and served as a four year member of Northwestern’s Project RISHI chapter, a health non-profit that works in villages near Pinjore in the Indian Punjab. I eventually added a major in Asian Languages and Cultures, focusing on South Asian literature and culture, and pursued extensive study of Urdu. I expanded my knowledge of Bollywood films and Desi music, studied abroad in India twice and began asking large questions about the construction of South Asian identities, nationalisms and the impact of colonialism on the region. In short, I covered a lot of ground in hopes of better understanding my ethnic identity, and that journey marked a shift from a personal investment to an academic and professional one as well.
At the end of my TEDx talk, I publicly committed to a goal and dream that had been growing in my mind for years: to work in the Indian development sector. Now, four years later, I am actually working in that space. Having grown significantly since age 19, the time is right to revisit that talk, and to revisit how I understood my relationship to development work in this country, one which often feels like home.
I made that public commitment as a youngster, one who had no idea what that sort of life would mean or entail. It was indeed a youthful wish, but one that I have held onto. I had a vision of turning my aim to know myself and my country better into a career, but had no idea how I would get there. The social sector was one avenue I knew and I wanted to find an opportunity to realize this goal. When I got the invitation to become an AIF Clinton Fellow, there was no chance I would decline.
In all my interviews with potential host organizations, the interviewer asked me about my talk, finding the passion in the video palpable and admirable but wanting to know if I could channel that passion into action. I told them I could, and that my experiences in college helped me channel that passion in tangible action and learning. I did not know exactly how that would look or how best I could help, but I assured them that I will do what is needed to be helpful and leave a sustainable impact. A big part of my fellowship journey has been understanding the way I can serve best and add the most value to my host organization.
My work during the fellowship has frequently been on the office side, writing grants and working on organizational processes, but I have also had opportunities to be in the field, whether facilitating sessions or visiting program sites. Even when I am not able to be in the field, work WhatsApp groups are always filled photos and stories of change and achievements, allowing me to be up to date on progress and feel more invested in the on-the-ground operations of the organization. But this is not the only way I have found to connect with the work.
Deigning and implementing Medha’s 21st-century and career skills education programs requires a sizable office team based in Lucknow and field teams at our partner colleges in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. My project at Medha is focused upon the organization’s reporting processes, from the field to the head office, and from the head office to key stakeholders like donors and our partner colleges, while also trying to create a storytelling culture that will suit the needs of both the office and field teams. While working to improve this process requires extensive collaboration in the office and relatively less time explicitly in the field, the importance of strong reporting is clear to me and to the Medha team. Being able to effectively bring impact data and stories of change to external parties is crucial to growing the organization, and so being able to convey impact clearly is crucial as well. Doing great work is necessary, clearly, but a failure to convey them represents a massive amount of lost potential, for the organization and in the value that these voices bring to education and employment spaces. This is my way of connecting and serving in a meaningful way, amplifying the work of Medha and the stories of the students to the best of my ability.
I always figured that if I came back to India, I would come work for children. Despite my best efforts to pursue potential work interests in other fields, I keep coming back to the education space, in both the U.S. and India, as an area of focus. When people ask why I want to be a professor of South Asian history and literature, I find always myself giving the same answer: I want to teach youth and to see them grow to be more confident and more self aware than I was at their age. Teaching may not end up being future career, but being a fellow in the education space has helped me understand the wide range of ways I can continue to serve in this sector, even without being a direct facilitator or teacher. If I will take any particular learning from this experience, it will be a greater knowledge of how to turn my passion and my academic background into a life of service.
I do not believe I have an inherent duty to serve India, but I do believe that everyone has a duty to serve their community as they define it. South Asians, and particularly youth, represent one of my communities. Seeing the faces of youth here in Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh, I always see my twin or twins. I look at them and see a mirror, a parallel reality to the life I am living, a life that could have been mine. Yes, the similarities between us are limited to our country of birth and our common humanity, but seeing the faces of our beneficiaries and watching their growth and achievements makes me push myself a little bit harder to serve in whatever capacity I can. Our motto at AIF is “Serve, Learn, Lead”, and I believe in that fully. It adds a bit of extra joy and a bit of extra fire to life, to be serving, learning, and leading on behalf of my twins, all of those who have not gotten the opportunities that I have recieved but have at least as much to offer to their communities and to the world.