Q&A with Ismael Byers, AIF Clinton Fellow 2019-20

Hands down, the best part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship for me has been the cohort. It’s so much more than an expansion of my professional network and exposure to new ideas and patterns of thinking – it’s an additional 20 friends who are compassionate, hilarious, genuine, quirky, supportive, and wickedly talented. 

My first introduction to my “fellow Fellows” was when I had to travel to Chicago unexpectedly to iron out a few visa issues. My visa approval was down to the wire – I had to get it taken care of in person in order to leave for India in time before the program would start. It turned out there was another Fellow with the same issue, who also had to travel to Chicago for his visa on the same day. 

That Fellow was Ismael Byers, and we immediately hit it off. We bonded over our shared Midwestern roots – he’s from Detroit, I hail from Kansas City – our mutual former-pre-med-student anxieties, and of course our excitement to begin the AIF Clinton Fellowship. 

Ismael and the author holding up their new visas
In Chicago, having just gotten our visas issued, we were so relieved!

From that stressful day when our visas and the whole possibility of the fellowship were hanging in the balance (a day we now affectionately call our “Chicago adventure”), Ismael and I have remained close. He has an infectious laugh, a trustworthy character, and a creative streak that will change the world someday. 

That’s why I chose to interview him. Read on to learn more about Ismael and his AIF Fellowship experience:*

The author, McKenna Parker, with Co-Fellows Mantasha Khaleel and Ismael Byers, departing from the Fellowship Orientation in Delhi to start the projects at their respective host organizations.

Q: Why did you apply to the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program?

A: After graduating, I decided I wasn’t going to medical school, but I wanted a global health and development experience. I got to know about AIF from a newsletter from a CDC internship that I had done some time ago, and I was super excited about the prospect of going to India. I wanted to be somewhere for at least six months, to do something meaningful and explore something beyond just medicine. I was working in a pharmacy before this and was enjoying it, but I wanted to have an impact that went beyond the individual level; I wanted to work on the systemic level. From the research I did on AIF, I could also tell that it would be a dynamic and unpredictable experience. I was attracted to the program because it would give me experience and skills that would be later transferable to my career in public health. 

Q: In college you were pre-med. Tell me about that journey and your decision to hold off on medicine for now.

A: Well, I think before the fellowship, I was focused on being a doctor and going to medical school with the hopes of addressing global health clinically, but ultimately, what fueled my interest for medicine was my desire to also address the systemic issues that are the hidden causes of the chief complaint. As an aspiring clinician, I was mainly interested in addressing health disparities among minorities and disadvantaged communities both locally and abroad. But I also realized that I wanted to address such disparities and other social issues in ways other than medicine: namely, film. 

I am still interested in attending medical school. But I realized the long and arduous path ahead of me, so I think it is important to explore my other passions. I’m in love with two different things – medicine and film making. And having a balance of the two is really important for me. I think you do yourself a disservice if you don’t give each of your passions a chance. 

Q: When did you first start experimenting with cameras and videography?

A: Technically, I first started experimenting at the age of thirteen. When I went on family vacations around the States, I would make these travel videos inspired by the show ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.’ I remember one trip to Philadelphia when I did my first vlog in this style, it was called ‘Crush It.’ I had a whole intro script – My middle name is Antonio, so I would be like “Hi, My name is Antonio Zimmern! I like to eat, travel, and run track! Today we’re here in Philadelphia to try the famous Philly Cheese Steak – let’s go inside – we’re gonna crush it!” It’d probably be cringe-y to watch those now, and I never published any of those vlogs. Maybe I’ll do a reaction video for them one day!

Then in my sophomore year of college, I went on this volunteer medical relief trip to Brazil and made a 13-minute documentary about the experience. Besides one basic videography class, I was totally self-taught. I remember never being as happy as I was when I was making it. I had no direction – no one was telling me what to film, and I didn’t even have my own camera – I had to borrow from people here and there. I shot interviews with the friends who had also gone, and the story just kind of came together naturally. 

When I was studying abroad in Chile during my junior year, I saw this entry competition for a film festival and knew I had to do it. I co-created the film with a friend on the trip, and we ended up weaving together this story about loneliness and how to turn it into something positive. Ultimately we named it Solitude: A Companion Abroad and it won the grand prize at the film festival! It took us completely by surprise, but we were really proud.

Scene from Solitude: A Companion Abroad where Ismael stands alone in San Pedro de Atacama at Valle de la Muerte.

Q: Do you see yourself working internationally in the future?

A: Yes, it’s likely that I will either return to India to work at a public health start-up or focus on Latin American health next. Ideally, I would like that experience before going on to graduate school (I’m hoping to pursue a Masters of Public Health in international health first). Long term, I am not sure I see myself focusing on more than one geographical location but my experience having worked in India has been so enriching that I am seriously considering returning at some point. Overall, I love working internationally because it’s humbling, and I am growing more self-aware because of it.

Q: You work as a Fellow for Youth4Jobs (Y4J) – what’s your favorite part of being placed at that particular host organization?

A: It’s my first experience in the disability sector. There’s so much depth and nuance here. It’s such a diverse field, and Y4J is one of very few NGOs doing this work at this scale, so it’s very exciting to work at such an organization. 

Because I’m also working on a special initiative called “Not Just Art,” It’s exciting to work not only in the disabilities sector, but at the intersection of disability and the arts. It’s a subculture that isn’t on many people’s radar, and I love working to promote something that is so worthy of recognition. My favorite part is honestly getting to meet and visit the artists and their families. Hearing their stories of perseverance despite many challenges is what inspires me the most every day. I really feel proud to be part of a project that promotes their work and I’m excited whenever we are able to help them secure a sale and gain more exposure.

At the Laxmi Vila Palace with a Not Just Art winner Durgesh Rathore Kumar, who had submitted a piece about his dyslexia.

Q: What problems in the world are most interesting to you?

A: The problems that matter to me the most are public health, access to health care, and equal rights for men and women. The politics and structures around these problems and more also really interest me. How do we change outdated systems and oppressing structures in ways that are both passionate and strategic?

Hate and fear really bother me, too. And I’m worried about the crisis of humanity we seem to be living in right now. I don’t know how to solve these big questions myself, but I take a lot of hope just from this fellowship experience; I see all these people interested in different aspects of these problems, and as a collective, we come at it from so many different ways and we all think in unique, versatile ways. We all care about creating a just world. It makes me really optimistic that we can come together and fix many things at the same time. That’s what makes this fellowship and cohort so unique.

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from this fellowship?

A: I’ve learned about social responsibility. The development sector is such a delicate field, and small mistakes can have really big consequences. This experience has taught me that the work I’m doing is not to be taken lightly. This motivates me to keep working hard and keep learning. 

We’re not just working with structures, systems, or constructs – these are human beings with livelihoods, with trust which can be broken. That’s just as frightening as it is inspiring. 

Building relationships and building trust with those I work with is really important to me, and I’ve learned that listening to the community you’re serving and trying to advocate for is so, so important.

Ismael with Mandeep Manu Singh, a digital artist and graphic designer from Punjab with locomotor disability.

Q: What’s one story or memory that you have from this fellowship that you’ll always keep with you?

A: I went to Ahmedabad with four other fellows to celebrate Navratri, and I loved it. The entire trip was planned on a whim, and I had no idea what it would be like. 

I had dreamt about India many times before the fellowship. I knew that it wouldn’t be, like, a Bollywood musical number – there wouldn’t be people singing in the streets or choreographed dancing. But somehow, during Navratri, that magical experience sort of did come about. It’s a religious festival, but it carried with it so much warmth, positivity, happiness, and acceptance. It was open to everyone, regardless of faith backgrounds, and it was just so beautiful to celebrate with so many others. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than me. 

I don’t remember ever dancing (or sweating) so much in my life, but I couldn’t stop because I was having so much fun! There were also like 30 rows of people playing garba, constantly moving around me, so it was borderline hazardous/impossible to get out from the center! 

It was an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture in a very organic way, not doctored at all. It was one of the best trips of my life. 

Navratri festivities in Ahmedabad. AIF Fellows from left to right: Eric Smith, Pallavi Deshpande, Aishwariya Maheshwari, Ayushi Parashar, and Ismael Byers.

Q: If you could go back to the Ismael about to embark on this fellowship, what would you say to him?

A: I would tell him to be prepared to take more risks. Let go of his fear and expectations for the future. These are things I continue to tell myself every day, though. 

Q: What is your ultimate career goal? Where do you want to be?

A: My biggest career goal is to make a positive and responsible impact on the community that I serve. Ultimately, I would love to find a professional space for both my passion for medicine and documentary film making to be fulfilled. If I decide to continue on the path of medicine on the road to becoming a clinician, I want to be able to not only make an impact with the patients that I work with but also on a community level that addresses public health issues that are caused by social factors. I also want to expose these issues with the power of film. And where do I want to be geographically? Before the fellowship, I had a very strong dedication to Latin America but now I also have a strong desire to continue working in India. We’ll see.

A night out to celebrate Ismael’s 24th birthday during the Fellowship Midpoint conference in Delhi in January.

Ismael – keep chasing happiness in your professional pursuits! I know you’ll be successful!

Learn more about Ismael’s fellowship project here. And check out his documentary films here

*Responses were edited for length and clarity.


McKenna is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Medha in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is expanding partnerships with educational institutions to scale up an existing 21st-century career skills training center designed to improve employment outcomes for youth. McKenna graduated with a degree in nutritional sciences. During her undergraduate years, she participated in research on the iron fortificants and protein quality of different fortified blended food products used by the U.S. Agency for International Development to address malnutrition and iron-deficient anemia in developing countries. After several years of nutrition research, she began questioning the underlying causes of malnutrition and poverty in the developing world. She diversified her work to investigate the social and economic factors that impact health outcomes, such as a community advocacy group for affordable housing in Manhattan, Kansas, and eventually to Split, Croatia, in 2017 to learn more about socialized healthcare systems. A childhood exposure to Indian culture left McKenna with a lifelong passion for the country, which led her to spend four months studying abroad in Bangalore at Christ University. She is excited to return to India in a professional capacity as an AIF Clinton Fellow. During her year of service, McKenna is looking forward to evolving professionally, engaging with the cohort, and gaining new perspectives on the development sector.

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