My AIF Banyan Impact Fellowship journey has been a whirlwind of emotions, from excitement, balancing the application process with the other challenges that came up, the seemingly endless wait for results to the ecstasy to finally making it to the class of 2022-23. This blog captures that journey and my Fellowship experience so far.
Part One: Preparing for the Fellowship; the application, essay and interview phases
American India Foundation’s Banyan Impact Fellowship, formerly known as AIF William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, is one of the most promising and impactful fellowships in the development sector of India. After getting rejected from the personal interview round in 2021 and preparing myself for the next year, I finally made it into the cohort of 2022–2023. Submitting my application in the month of February 2022 and getting to hear back on the final selection in July 2022 was a long wait.
They say that the application is your bible because even before you appear for the interview, your fortunes of progressing are decided by it. The essays were comprehensive and made me think, brainstorm and proofread the answers multiple times before I submitted them. I had been traveling around the country for my fieldwork when I was completing my application for the AIF fellowship. I was working with Goonj then on the issues of menstrual health management and rural development. While conducting menstrual health management sessions, interacting with grassroots communities and keeping up with my fieldwork, I wrote my essays in Maharashtra’s districts of Palghar and Ratnagiri. Suddenly our team on field got infected by COVID-19 and the third wave of COVID-19 restrictions had already been implemented across India. As a result I could not travel back to Delhi (my host location then), and had to travel back to Pune (my hometown). Working from home, I tried to shape my essays and with the eventual ease in restrictions, I was called back to Delhi. It was after a few days of me reaching Delhi when I finally turned in my application. After two and a half months of anxiety and overthinking—what if I didn’t make it through the first round?— I learned that I had been shortlisted for the personal interview round while I was in Bangalore for a wedding.
As someone coming from the western part of the country, fairly distant from the coasts, I wasn’t used to the humid climatic conditions of Chennai. It was during that time of the year, when the summers in Chennai were at their peak and I wasn’t able to adjust to them well, that I had to appear for my personal interview. The interview lasted for 45-50 minutes with panelists composed of AIF fellowship team members, AIF fellowship alumni, and an AIF intern. The questions were primarily focused on the application that I had written, my previous and current work experience, the strong values that I follow in my professional and personal life, and how I resonated with the larger vision and values of ‘Serve, Learn, and Lead’ (AIF’s core values). It was difficult to appear for such an intense interview, especially at 12 p.m. in the afternoon with no fan or A/C at my accommodation. Despite all the challenges and difficulties that I faced on a personal front, I was able to make it through the interview round and got shortlisted as a finalist, moving forward to the project matching phase.
The project matching phase is the most crucial and final stage of the selection process, where I got to shortlist 3–4 projects from the project briefs provided by the AIF. I was then able to interview the shortlisted organizations and give my preference based on the projects I liked the most. I was nervous and stressed about how I would be able to appear for these interviews for this final and most important stage of the selection process as I was traveling to Chhattisgarh for my one-month rural immersion at that time. It was only then that I started believing in myself, reminding myself that I had achieved this and was one step closer to realizing my dream of being accepted into the fellowship. Working with India’s most vulnerable tribes in the deep pockets and far-flung villages of India while simultaneously struggling to find a place where I could get enough network to get connected for a call, I sailed through it. I was successfully matched with Kriti Social Initiatives in Hyderabad, where I am currently working on developing and testing content and methodology to work with adolescents to improve their life skills, self awareness, confidence, decision-making skills, negotiation skills and employability skills with these children/ youth studying in low-income private schools and government schools in Sheikpet Mandal, Hyderabad. The project matching interviews were typically a 30-minute call where I got to discuss the project with the Host Organizations and got an equal opportunity to interview them and be interviewed by them at the same time.
Part Two: Orientation
Our orientation conference began in the month of October 2022 in a virtual capacity and was followed by an in-person orientation at “Zorba the Buddha,” a resort in New Delhi. The virtual orientation was conducted over a week with a variety of sessions and fun activities. The virtual and in-person orientations were nicely planned and they prepared me well for the upcoming months of the service. One of the most valuable things I learned from this orientation is how to be kind and empathetic toward others. There were a few sessions and elements that forced me to introspect and understand myself well, something I had been looking forward to doing for a long time. Going forward, it will also help me work closely with the communities in the upcoming months of my service.
Overall, the orientation was quite enriching for me, but the three biggest highlights for me were the sessions on Design Thinking, Building Trust within the Fellowship Community and the Scavenger Hunt.
The design thinking session helped me understand how to conceptualize things and is bringing immense value as I work on my project. The activity that took place at the start of our in-person orientation, “Building trust within the fellowship community,” was, I feel, very essential and helped us all know each other better and feel a connection with each other. It helped us build trust, make new friendships, know ourselves better and tap on our creative side by expressing ourselves using art. During those 2 hours, I experienced many emotions and felt connected with most of my co-fellows. I learned from that session how important it is to accept people for who they are and to be as non-judgmental as possible.
The scavenger hunt activity was fun, as it gave us a chance to go out in groups and complete our tasks. One of our tasks was to go to a mall and click on some funny pictures in the stores. At first, all of us were a bit uncomfortable doing it, but somehow we all encouraged each other to come out of our comfort zones and complete our tasks. It was our first task as a group and allowed us to know more about each other, becoming a good ice-breaker for all of us.
Both the virtual and in-person legs of orientation gave me a sense of what an AIF Fellow means and the duties, responsibilities and decorum that should be maintained during service. For me, as an individual, it is very important to be surrounded by like-minded people who understand the values and emotions of empathy, kindness and acceptance towards others. The conference made me feel safe and secure. I remember a day during the in-person orientation when I felt a bit low, but people around me made me feel good about myself. There was a safe space created by the staff and the fellows where each other’s opinions and thoughts were respected, which made me feel good.
As a man, I think we rarely talk about establishing safe spaces for boys or appreciating them beyond the confines of traditional masculinity. There have been a few instances in the past where I have felt extremely uncomfortable, but this space made me feel good as my thoughts were respected and no one judged me for my silence. Moving forward, I believe it is critical to have such all-inclusive safe spaces where thoughts, ideas, and emotions are respected and I thank all AIF staff members and fellows for helping to create and maintain one.
Part Three: Reaching the H.O
I have been placed with Kriti Social Initiatives, an NGO that has been working on the twin issues of women’s empowerment and the education of underprivileged children in the slums of Hyderabad since 2009. During the project-matching phase, I liked the project and felt an immediate affinity with the organization and its co-founder Himani Gupta. The project piqued my interest as I was looking forward to working with children in urban slums on educational and youth development issues. After the interview, I had a strong instinct that I might be paired with Kriti because our areas of interest overlapped and my skill sets were complementary to the project.
My supervisor and I were unable to connect (virtually) during our virtual orientation, but I did get a brief opportunity to chat with her before I arrived in Hyderabad. She was very kind and made all the arrangements for my accommodation before my arrival at the placement site. The first few days at the Host Organization were challenging as I was still trying to understand the new people, office, and the work that Kriti does. I got an opportunity to visit the communities in the old city of Hyderabad where Kriti works with girls and women by giving them vocational training in tailoring, which helped me get a sense of the community that I would be working with.
Searching for an apartment in a new city, managing my daily meals and trying to figure out my daily commute to the office were challenging as well as mentally and physically draining. I used a couple of online house-renting websites and tried to explore the neighborhood near my office with a broker, but unfortunately that did not work out. I was fortunate enough to find a place with the help of a friend in a decent neighborhood.
I’ve been at the host site for a month and a few days now and I feel settled. It took a lot longer than I anticipated. There were a few days when I felt frustrated and irritated with the things that I could not control (like finding a place to stay, managing my daily meals, getting to understand the host community etc.), but that’s when the amazing AIF support system (Fellowship team members, Senior Fellows and co-fellows) comes in to assist you whenever you need it.