I’ve always believed that flying in an airplane, suspended in the sky, sandwiched between the forces of gravity and lift, is a magical feeling. Peeking out at the pure azure sky above pillowy clouds from those tiny windows always brought me the most sincere joy, ever since my first time in an airplane at 8 years old.
Even though I had flown domestically from a young age, I never left the country until I was in college. I did a short 2 weeks in Croatia one summer, but my semester in India was my true first taste outside of Euro-centric and “Western” culture. On my flight there, I had chosen a long layover in Abu Dhabi, as an excuse to visit just ONE more country on the way!
A change in altitude woke me up suddenly – the plane was beginning to make its descent into the United Arab Emirates. A quick glance at the interactive flight map showed that we were about halfway between Tehran and Baghdad, the capital cities of Iran and Iraq. Suddenly aware that I had never actually, physically laid eyes on this part of the world before, I quickly slid the window shade up and was blinded by the brightness. When my eyes adjusted, I looked down to see breathtaking views of the Arabian desert that extended as far as I could see. Cities were barely visible gray flecks clustered between mountains of sand. It hit me that while I had never physically seen it before this moment, this area of the world, and the people living in those cities 20,000 feet below me, had influenced my life indirectly for years.
September 11th happened when I was just a kindergartener. Then my country invaded Iraq in 2003, marking the beginning of a horrific humanitarian crisis that we now know had much more to do with protecting our national oil interests than with counter-terrorism. That invasion fuelled the terror threats we currently face, and sparked a new wave of racist, anti-immigrant sentiment in the US (some of which was wrongly directed to Indian-Americans). While the US CIA operation to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh didn’t occur in my lifetime, the cascading effects of that 1953 intervention can be felt in modern Iran. All of the significance of my American identity hit me as the Arabian desert stared up at me from below.
It was an emotionally gripping moment. I grew up in Missouri, the ‘Show Me’ state, and here I was, in the Eastern hemisphere for the first time. This view from my airplane window was showing me something previously unknown, unfelt, and it made me reframe my entire relationship with the world.
To be clear, I recognize that my briefly flying over Iraq/Iran and spending a 10-hour layover in the United Arab Emirates was not at all an immersive experience. It didn’t come close to my semester in Bangalore or my time as an AIF Clinton Fellow in Lucknow. But it is a testament to the power of mere exposure to a place that is radically different from one’s home. To get the chance to have such exposure is a massive privilege, and the mindset shifts they occasion can be so valuable to one’s education.
If a mere sighting has the power to elicit such feelings, imagine the possible impact of a study abroad term, and even further still, a fellowship year. A fellowship abroad is a unique pairing of education and work experience, a real-world extension to one’s schooling. AIF has conceptualized this perfectly in their motto, ‘Serve, Learn, Lead.’
The American India Foundation and its Clinton Fellowship Program were created to serve communities philanthropically, but they also have an ulterior purpose – to create bridges between our two nations via relationships formed amongst nearly 500 fellowship alumni and a staggering range of stakeholders in the Indian social sector.
Being plugged into AIF means being a part of the social ecosystem that is making strides in the movement to “better whole communities and transform India into a more open, equitable, and vibrant democracy.” Such an ecosystem is transformative to those involved. It’s an environment built on the principles of empathy, trust, partnership, and transparency.
I started seeing the world outside of my country and my ‘Show Me’ state for the first time back in 2017. I briefly spotted Iraq/Iran from above, and spent an afternoon traipsing around Abu Dhabi. Then I spent 4 months studying and traveling extensively around South India, and came back and worked in the North during my fellowship.
So what did I learn from it all?
“Exposure” is powerful, but only the beginning of “Show Me.” Next comes the call to Serve, Learn, and Lead.