Today on July 1st, 2020, we celebrated the closing seminar and graduation ceremony of the 2019-20 AIF Clinton Fellowship cohort. Albeit virtual for the first time due to COVID-19, it turned out to be a meaningful event and festive celebration of service, resilience, and hope for the future of U.S.-India cross-cultural exchange. Over 300 guests from around the world joined in. The event featured insightful contributions from guest speakers congratulating the graduating Fellows. Here are some highlights.
Cultural Exchange in the U.S.-India Partnership
“[Cultural exchange] is an area that not only helps expand the universe of those currently engaged in U.S.-India ties in some manner, but also plants the seeds that can grow over a lifetime and in many different sectors… Increasing the size of the cohort on both sides, can, in the long run, help further all aspects of U.S.-India ties.” -Dr. Alyssa Ayres
Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, shared how her experience studying abroad in India changed and shaped the course of her life. While discussing the amount of growth that both India and the U.S.-India relationship have had since their time as “estranged democracies,” Dr. Ayres pointed to surprising study abroad data that highlights how much more cultural exchange between the two deeply-connected allies is needed in the future. Following her keynote speech, Ambassador Wisner and Dr. Ayres joined together to discuss the answers to burning questions, such as: what are the challenges that these new Fellows are going to face in the future and how are they going to handle them? And, how will the U.S.-India relationship change in the presence of the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election?
A Partnership for Effective Cross-Cultural Exchange
“Perspective, perspective, perspective… One can not begin to help without trying to view any situation from a number of different perspectives. It’s kind of like that saying about walking in another person’s shoes, but what an experience like the Peace Corps and the AIF Fellowship program gives, is the understanding that YOU, as the Volunteer or Fellow have the option of taking those shoes off, while many people lack that option. It’s about thoughtful consideration.” -Paul Glick
Paul Glick, Executive Director of the Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST), a funding partner of the AIF Clinton Fellowship program, discussed the importance of the strategic partnership between RIST and AIF. He shared details about the necessity of organizations working together to achieve social and economic change in the tumultuous times we face today. Reflecting back on his life-changing experiences while serving in the U.S. Peace Corps, Mr. Glick emphasized the valuable gains that programs like the AIF Clinton Fellowship provide for not just the Fellows themselves, but for the communities they are placed into and the communities they return home to.
The Importance of Philanthropy and Investing in the Next Generation of Change Makers
“I think if we put it in the context of today’s world, India and the U.S. are both struggling with making sure our democracies thrive. We can overcome historical legacies, we can create opportunities for the future, and if our Fellows become that small group of committed people, then AIF has invested in the future of its mission. What can be more powerful?” -Lata Krishnan
Lata Krishnan, Co-Chair of AIF’s Board of Directors and Founding President of AIF, and Ajay Shah, Co-Chair of AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, expanded on the importance of investing in the next generation of changemakers in order to create lasting social and economic change in the future. Tying their own experiences living, studying, and working across continents and cultures into the life-changing experiences that the Fellowship provides, Ms. Krishnan and Mr. Shah underscored the significance that serving for ten months will have both for the careers that Fellows will soon embark upon but also for helping NGOs on the ground to achieve their mission and bridge the divide between the U.S. and India. While the Fellowship program has grown over the years from a handful of thoughtful, committed, and passionate young professionals to one that has invested in 500+ Americans and Indians, the program does not end at the 10th month: rather, Ms. Krishnan and Mr. Shah emphasized the strong impact that continuing to be part of the alumni network and the AIF ecosystem can be used to create further opportunities, to find people with like-minded interests, and to generate resources for future projects.
Fellow Representatives Speak
“Change can be beautiful and scary at the same time. You can be hurting and wondering what tomorrow will bring, but you can also be healing and happy. Sometimes it’s not best to question why you’re feeling this way, but instead experience all of the emotions that change may bring… Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.” -Mantasha Khaleel
Two representatives from the 2019-20 Fellowship cohort offered closing remarks: Anant Tibrewal from Texas and Mantasha Khaleel from Uttar Pradesh shared passionate stories about what serving on the AIF Clinton Fellowship meant to them. Mantasha recounted her personal growth, evolving from doubting herself as a young Muslim woman at the beginning of her experience to finding a new light inside her, believing in herself and successfully completing her project of facilitating dialogue in collaboration within local communities. For Anant, this journey of self-reflection was mirrored in the uncertainty of leaving a stable job in Silicon Valley to travel halfway across the world to create change in India: change that wasn’t limited to his impact in the intersection between technology and disability, but change that emboldened his decision making skills as a person with a disability, to make his own choices without fear or hesitation.
Podcast Launch: “Let’s Chaat”
“At their heart, [the podcast is made up of] human stories, stories not just of the Fellowship program, but stories of the sense of the Fellowship itself.” -Ismael Byers
The event culminated in the launch of the AIF Fellowship program’s first-ever podcast series: “Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship from the USA and India.” It’s a collection of six episodes detailing some of the most captivating stories from this past year’s cohort: funny ones, heartfelt ones, and thought-provoking ones. The podcast series is produced, written, and edited by 2019-20 Fellows Ismael Byers and McKenna Parker. The podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and the AIF YouTube Channel. (As well as Anchor, PocketCasts, Breaker, Overcast, and RadioPublic.)
Virtual Graduation Ceremony & Cocktail Happy Hour
“This year has been a truly unforgettable journey and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has touched so many. I am so happy to have worked alongside such an impressive group of individuals, 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.” -Amanpreet Kaur
Following the announcement of this year’s publications, the AIF Clinton Fellowship Team headed to the stage to facilitate the 20th-ever Graduation Ceremony. Each candidate’s name was called and they were presented (virtually) with their own certificate signed by Nishant Pandey, CEO of AIF, and Mathew Joseph, Country Director for AIF. After formally graduating from the AIF Clinton Fellowship program, Fellows were given the opportunity to briefly share a summary of their Fellowship projects through artfully-crafted Impact Posters, allowing the audience to truly see their work in action. This year, 19 AIF Clinton Fellows completed their 10-month service with 18 local organizations in 14 states. They worked on projects ranging from training rural women entrepreneurs in distributing clean energy products in Rajasthan, supporting a startup in combating climate change through reforestation in Uttarakhand, and building innovative solutions to foster inclusion of persons with disabilities into the workforce across India.
To conclude this year’s Closing Seminar, all attendees and presenters were invited to a virtual cocktail Happy Hour. Here, in small breakout rooms, attendees were able to engage with all the Fellows in a smaller circle, and meet and mingle with other attendees. Fantastic discussions between all who joined led participants to come away from this experience feeling excited, refreshed, and motivated to make a difference. A full recording of the 2019-20 Closing Seminar can be found on Facebook. Click here to watch.