AIF Clinton Fellowship 2015 – 16
It is extraordinary how life can change in an instant – for better or for worse. For now, I’d like to talk about the better. It was in late January I came to know about the fellowship through a job portal. As usual, I read the description just as I read any other job vacancies, announcements, internships and fellowships – the selection process, the criteria for selection, what does AIF do and what the fellowship was about. I was qualified to apply for it. I did though I had to motivate and push myself to finish the whole application process as it was long and arduous.
I had already started working with an international non-profit organisation and was doing quite well, I suppose. There was a sense of achievement being employed with a reputed organisation after a long period of unemployment, frustration and endurance. The pressure of having to apply for the fellowship with a ‘must-get-selected’ mentality was missing. It actually helped immensely in calming my mind when answering the questions in the application process. I felt myself connected to the experiences I have had up to that point in my life as well as the possibilities of going through new and unseen experiences in future. In other words, I was excited what life would bring. It didn’t really matter if I get selected or not. I kept my mind open, bared my heart out and said what I truly felt without fear of being judged. I felt confident, I was ready.
Months passed, no mails from AIF. Come to think of it, I had almost forgotten that I applied for the fellowship. Meanwhile I was getting exciting assignments and tasks from the organisation I was working with. Then one day, I received an email from AIF. I was shortlisted for the next round of the selection process. I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted the world, my world, to know. I didn’t tell anyone that I had applied for it (Of course I did when I got selected – duh!). I forwarded the email to my parents, my friends, my colleagues, and the professor who wrote one of my reference letters. I even told my landlord about it.
After the excitement ended, questions followed regarding the prospects of joining the fellowship – whether there are any job guarantees after the fellowship, what sort of work will I be doing, how much stipend will I get and many more. Since I didn’t have the answers to all these questions, it made me have second thoughts about the fellowship and reconsider seriously preparing for it. No doubt it dented my confidence. I started to drift away from it little by little. I kept working on other assignments and projects while the day of the interview approached closer and closer. But even though I wasn’t serious at all, it was always at the back of my mind. Sometimes when I had free time, I’d open the website and read the blogs that previous fellows had written about their experience, the challenges they had to face. Slowly but not convincingly, I felt my interest in the fellowship grew again. To keep myself motivated, I read reviews of the fellowship in news articles, columns and reports.
The day of the interview came. Just before I left for the AIF office, I quickly glanced at my application summary to remember what I had said when I applied for it. Waiting in the lounge at the AIF office, I was glad that AIF had designed the interview process in such a way that shortlisted candidates wouldn’t have to sit together facing each other, pretending to look confident at the same time trying figure out what kind of a candidate the other person is while waiting for our respective names to be called upon. I was relieved I was the only one there on that day at that moment. The fact that a man with unruly hair, a stubble beard wearing white pajamas, sporting a black shirt with rock music prints on it came out from a room in sandals in total contrast to my full formals (minus the tie) boosted my confidence level in some sort of way. He looked at me, waved and said “Hi” with a smile to which I replied in the same manner. (I don’t know who you are but if we meet again, I will shake hands with you and tell you what an awesome shirt you wore on that day.)
Cassie, my interviewer, came. She set up the conference room with Oindrilla, (who later became my AIF staff mentor) and requested me to come in whenever I was ready. Just before I went in, another guy came and had a word with my interviewer. I remember Cassie asking him to come for the interview. He never did. For some reason, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have made the cut if he was present at the interview. Anyway, I am glad he was preoccupied with something on that day.
Once inside the conference room, out of nowhere, all those doubts, second thoughts, uncertainty and insecurity descended upon me. It was as if they were waiting for me inside the room. I grew nervous, I felt my palms getting sweaty and for the first time in the whole selection process, I felt scared. At some point, I was so nervous that I had to take off my glasses. It got fogged up. It sort of helped because I couldn’t see the interviewers properly. I held on to that last bit of confidence I had left and tried my best put up a brave face. It was when Cassie came to the rescue.
Cassie herself was also a Clinton fellow two years ago. I doubt she went through the same experience I did but she helped me pulled through the interview. After the usual ‘Tell me about yourself’ and formalities, I noticed that the nature of the interview was getting conversational. Slowly and steadily, I felt my confidence come back and I kept talking, not exactly sure whether I was making sense or not, but I just kept telling her about my experience and at times, asking her about her experiences as well. She was placed in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh during her fellowship. I had gone there the previous year for a field research trip pertaining to my Master’s course. We found a common platform and we talked about it. I asked questions related to her work, not sure whether it was even relevant, but she answered everything I asked. Before I even realised it, almost an hour had already passed into the interview. Finally, it came to an end. I left the office in a good mood though still confused if it was a bad interview or a good one. I went to my other office where I was still employed, told my colleagues about how the interview went and played table tennis the whole evening. In my head the whole time, I kept trying to make sense of whatever happened at the interview.
More than a month passed when I received another email from AIF. It was official; I had become an AIF Clinton Fellow. Even though I had initially thought that I wouldn’t accept the Fellowship because of so many factors and circumstances, I decided to go for it since I knew, with certainty, that I may not get this opportunity ever again. And of course, after everything I went through and the effort I had put into it, I didn’t want to throw the opportunity away.
I was placed at an organisation called SAUHARD based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and that’s how I met my mentor – GAURANG RAVAL. He is also the guy who never came in to take my interview with Cassie (which I found out later). Maybe I was so nervous that I don’t remember him when I left after the interview. He remembered me though.
More on him in later blogs. Not enough space.
Four months have passed since I have started working as an AIF Clinton Fellow at Sauhard. It’s a small organisation, they work with youths, has a small office called “Thikana”, no permanent staff, no fixed timings, my project is going slow…but if you ask me if I ever regret taking the fellowship, I’d probably tell you that it’s one of the best decision I have ever made. Along with the challenges I have to overcome, the fellowship brings with it a plethora of new experiences, of friendship within and across borders, of places I have never been to or never thought of going, a new perspective of how I see the world and how is it different from others, and last but not the least, a step towards finding myself. However, the journey is not over yet; there still more to come. If there is one thing I can tell you what makes the fellowship as exciting as it sounds so far, it is that you just don’t know what’s coming but you’ve got to be ready for it – good or bad.