Student, Fellow, Daughter…Farmer?

Who and what defines us and our identity is an interesting question. Do we define ourselves by what we do (student, fellow, teacher, farmer)? Do we define ourselves by our relationships (mother, sister, aunt, friend)? Or do we define ourselves by the intangible personality traits that we hope and try to project to the world (outcoming, kind, thoughtful, occasionally snarky)?  These identifiers can shape how we view ourselves and through a tricky combination of societal understandings of certain terms, also define our limits and the accompanying expectations of our actions and behaviors.

As a recent college graduate, I have just undergone a major shedding of one of my key identifiers.  After 17 years of calling myself a student, I am no longer a student. While I have been grappling with this shift in identity since I graduated in May, it has only been within the past three weeks, while struggling to string together broken and semi-coherent Hindi sentences, that I’ve realized a universal descriptor is no longer mine to use. An especially unfortunate linguistic whammy when one of my fallback conversations starters while studying in Jaipur was, “Mein Vidyarthi hun”, “I am a student”. So now, when asked, “What do I do?” on field visits, I sometimes draw a blank. I’m no longer a student, the term Fellow seldom translates, and I am still uncomfortable unilaterally declaring myself an NGO worker.  As a result, people place their own identifiers on me, “she’s a volunteer” co-workers say, or, “English girl” school kids giggle in Hindi.

Finding, and using, the correct words to define why I’m living in a village, half way up a mountain, in Northwest India, has proved challenging these first few weeks but well paralleled with the focus of my host organization. My placement at Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in Dharmsala, Himachal Pradesh is focused on helping to define and question societal identities. Specifically for my project, on how to better recognize and promote the identity and contribution of women farmers.  Himachal Pradesh is a highly agricultural state. Women are an integral part of this agricultural life often carrying a vast majority of the household and farm responsibilities. Despite the brunt of farming  falling on women however, the general image associated with farmers continues to be that of a male. Despite not reflecting the current reality of life in Kangra, when school children are asked to draw a farmer, men are the first image drawn.  Jagori’s work attempts to challenge the socially accepted male farmer image by assisting women to gain a more active voice in agriculture through leadership trainings, agricultural workshops, and creating supply chains that connect women farmers moving toward organic growing with local markets.

Working at a women’s organization dedicated to equality for all, and observing the general male dominance of the public sphere of life, I find myself asking the question, “What can we do to make the future better for our girls?” After spending time here, part of the answer seems to be allowing girls and women to define their identities using the words and language they are comfortable with. In daily life that translates to calling women farmers “Farmers”, and supporting girls who assert their dreams of becoming a civil engineer, as one young school girl told me during a workshop,  until they have the confidence to support themselves.

My own heightened awareness of restructuring my identity has helped me sympathize with the issues that female Indian farmers face. Already I’ve developed the Hindi language skills to explain a bit more about why I’m here and my work at Jagori, and even to make jokes on my role as, “a student of life”. While I have much more to understand about daily life for women famers in Himachal Pradesh, I am eager to learn from my teammates at Jagori. I am eager to learn more about our projects and their impact on the community,  but also, as strong women themselves, how they define their identity. For now though, I’ll keep thinking about how we can make the future better for our girls, help them assert their own power,  know their own inherent self worth, and give them the space to identify themselves as they please.

My walk to work
My walk to work


Cassie believes that the search for creative solutions in sustainable development is crucial to problem solving. Her focus on India was solidified when she was accepted into the Hindi Language program as part of the Ohio Foreign Language Academy. During her undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University, she focused on Economics and South Asia both through coursework and as a student with the School of International Training in Jaipur, Rajasthan. While studying with SIT she completed an independent study project in Raithal Village, Uttarakhand on the impact of climate change on cash crops and traditional community livelihoods. Currently, she is a Network Associate with Generation Enterprise, an international non-profit based in Lagos, Nigeria and Delhi, India dedicated to assisting marginalized youth receive the business skill training and confidence they need to start sustainable, high-growth potential businesses. Cassie's passion for social innovation and food security is driven by the fundamental power of good food to nourish the individual, build community, and bring us all to the same table.

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13 thoughts on “Student, Fellow, Daughter…Farmer?

  1. Beautifully written Cassie and thought provoking.. And also I am tad bit jealous of your ‘walk to work’.. All the best in every role that defines you 🙂

  2. Cassie
    The future of India depends upon women identifying themselves as they please and men not thinking of ways to delay it. As far as identity is concerned I hope we all are students of something or other throughout our lives . Without learning there is actually no life.
    Thanks for making us think.
    Most people will trade their walk for yours.

  3. Beautiful! I’m so excited to follow your experience this year, we will talk soon to compare notes. It sounds like you’re going to be doing some really great work and I can’t wait to see how it goes! Love you

  4. Great post Cassie. This reminds me the conversation we had over dinner regarding women in India.
    Looking forward to read more such posts.
    All the best!

  5. Cassie, obviously I have no idea how the Hindi language works, nor the culture where you are. Yet even before you got to the end of your post, my first thought was, “the language has to change to reflect that women are farmers too.” As a woman who began seminary in 1979, I quickly learned that the language we chose to use was critical. If you said “clergyman,” that’s exactly what you saw — a man. It is easy to ignore the power of language, but it does shape how we see both ourselves and others. You are certainly on your way! I’m eager to hear more, Cass!

  6. Hi Cass,
    Yes I would trade for your walk to work for a change! What a great piece, when I started reading I immediately thought we are all students as we never stop learning! I am still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, lol! You are wonderful example for those you are working with! Love you!

  7. That’s a wonderful piece of your blog Cassie…!! I respect what you doing…!! Feels good to know that someone is filling up the voids, which have been left ignored by most of us…
    Let me know if I can be of any help… 🙂

  8. A beautiful piece of writing, Cass. So good to be experiencing your journey even so slightly through your posts. KEEP POSTING! Miss ya. Mom

  9. Beautifully written, Cassie. You are doing important work. So proud of you. Enjoy each day and moment as you embark on The University of Life.

  10. Identity is like Human Skin. You don’t think about it until it cuts or bleeds or when you are defending it. But I think you are spot on when you talk about the use and value of language or words to define how we think or how we ought to think – in such a way that values the role of women and girls in progressive development of a community. Keep writing.

  11. Beautifully written Cassie. Male dominance in the public sphere is something very common in India. Challenging it and bringing in equality for all is indeed a difficult task. Kudos to you and your organisation who have taken such a bold step. Hope to read more.

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