When I was selected to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I remember scouring the AIF website, the fellowship’s YouTube page, social media handles and every corner of the internet, to prepare myself for what was to come. What I found to be the most useful storehouse of information about the fellowship were the blogs written by previous fellows, which mentioned not only the highlights of the fellowship experience but also very realistically discussed the challenges and obstacles that one would encounter during the fellowship. It was while reading these blogs that I decided, exactly a year ago, funnily enough, the topic for my own last blog entry – a practical guide for those embarking on the fellowship.
In Douglas Adams’ masterpiece The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a hilarious and also deeply philosophical take on human existence), when the Earth gets demolished to make way for a hyperspatial express route, the protagonist, Arthur Dent, is an ordinary person who finds himself adrift in a universe characterised by randomness and absurdity, and all of this before he’s even had his morning tea! In a similar vein, the fellowship is unpredictable and full of possibilities to learn about different people and cultures. And while the Earth isn’t going to be destroyed (we hope!), the fellows do step out into unfamiliar territory, armed with only their curiosity and willingness to serve, learn and lead. My last blog, an ode to one of my favourite books, is, therefore, a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Fellowship Journey.
- To begin with, maintain a log of all the work done for your host organisation during the fellowship. This can be in the form of an Excel sheet and can be shared with your supervisor at the host organisation. While the emphasis of your work will remain your fellowship project, most resource-strapped organisations require the fellow to don many hats and perform a wide range of tasks – from proofreading emails to drafting social media posts. Every task, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem at that time, deserves a place in your work log, to help you reflect on your fellowship year and if nothing else, to give you a sense of all your achievements.
- Take every chance to interact with your host community, even if you do not know the local language or if the interaction is not directly related to your fellowship work. Despite having served the entirety of my fellowship virtually, I can safely say that my online interactions with the host community – primarily children in schools and orphan homes, were the most rewarding and enriching aspects of my year. These interactions ensured that even though I was miles away from the community, their needs and aspirations remained the focal point of my work.
- Be open to taking up tasks that are completely new to you and unrelated to the subjects and skills that you may have learnt during your formal education. The fellowship is a chance to learn new real-world skills that may eventually have applications in different aspects of your career. For instance, although I had no formal training or education in theatre and design, I was asked to learn playback theatre with my host organisation and also to design their website. While this was intimidating at first, I now look back with a sense of satisfaction at having been able to learn these two new skills.
- Reach out to your co-fellows because, as clichéd as this may sound, your cohort is one of your biggest assets. Connecting with my co-fellows placed in different organisations and geographies gave me ideas for various partnerships and collaborations with them and also helped me stay abreast of the kinds of work taking place in the development sector. And of course, the experience of collectively stressing out over looming deadlines is cathartic and fun.
- Be prepared to face ethical/moral dilemmas during your work. We may go into the fellowship with our passionate and closely-held beliefs in social justice, gender equality, secularism etc., and yet quickly realise that these ideals may not be upheld in the ‘real world’, either in the work of the host organisation or within the community or even in donor organisations. These dilemmas, instead of shaking my faith in my principles, reinforced within me a deeper, more nuanced understanding of why I should continue fighting for what I believe in.
- Never forget your own positionality in the host organisation and community. Your positionality may be that of an ‘outsider’, someone more privileged, more urban or educated than everyone else in the room. Are you the only male in a room full of women? Are you the youngest person? Are you the only one who can speak English? Developing this self-reflexivity helps build an awareness of the power dynamics in motion when we say or do something in the field – from weighing in on an argument in the workplace to expressing our disapproval towards someone in the community, every action we take may have significant repercussions that we must become aware of.
- Finally, remember to have fun! Don’t pressure yourself by thinking that the fellowship is the most defining moment in your career path but rather, think of it as the first step in a long and fruitful journey into the development sector. And much like the enchanted golden snitch in Harry Potter, your fellowship “opens at the close”!