Top 7 Surprising Things About My AIF Fellowship, by Jimmy Ossman

In the months before departing for my AIF fellowship I played out every possible challenge, obstacle, adventure, and experience that I would encounter—or so I thought. I left my life in Washington, DC and with that, my comfort zone. As I embarked on this adventure with a wide-open mind, I was prepared to take in everything, learn a lot, and be put to the test.

Despite all of my preparation and efforts to keep my expectations in check, I find myself surprised on regular basis. I’ve created a list of the top 7 things that have surprised me about coming to India as an AIF Fellow.

7) Building a life from scratch is challenging, but eye opening: You forget how easy life can be when living somewhere for a long time. For some reason I forgot that leaving home for a new adventure would also involve starting a new life from scratch. With all of the cultural differences that must be navigated through on a daily basis, it was difficult at first to establish a new routine, build local contacts, and feel at home. It’s been reassuring to discover how adaptable I am and the similarities between life in America and India.

6) AIF Fellows make great friends: I knew I wouldn’t go a year without making any friends, but I didn’t expect the group of extremely diverse fellows to bond so quickly and so closely. Before even stepping off the plane into Delhi’s airport I had a strong sense that my “fellow fellows” would be great friends and a network of support. The friendships made among fellows are no doubt, one of the best surprises.
5) Being a foreigner in my office gives me a new perspective : The work culture in India is quite different from America. Everything from scheduling meetings, to making decisions, to having lunch with coworkers can seem unusual at times. I’ve worked in international NGOs with diverse multi-cultural staffs before, but never filled the role of the foreigner. It’s a challenge adjusting to small differences, but I’m gaining invaluable insight that will make me a much better and more sensitive colleague in the future.

4) Time flies and drags: I’ve been surprised by both how quickly and how slowly time seems to move here. When I think that I’ve been in India for just over three months I’m shocked that it hasn’t been longer. At the same time, when I think of all I’ve done, learned, and seen since arriving, it feels like a lifetime worth of experiences. The real challenge is living in the moment and enjoying the time I have in this beautiful country.

3) I’m more flexible than I realized: If you asked me the first time I stepped foot in an auto rickshaw or narrowly avoided a pile of cow manure on the sidewalk if I ever thought life in India would feel “normal”, the answer would have been a very confident “No!” To my surprise, adapting to things here happens much quicker than I expected. In practically no time, the thoughts of “holy crap, this is my life” went from occurring every 10 minutes, to every few days. Now, the orderliness and excess often present in America seems foreign.

2) I’m painting a different picture of America: There are plenty of Americans living in India, particularly in Bangalore. Nearly everyone I encounter has a preconceived notion of what it means to be American, and to my surprise it has often been negative. Its nice to offer an alternative view to the many people I encounter that assume I work in the I.T. industry, make big bucks, and want nothing to do with the average Indian. The vegetable vendor I go to almost fell over when I told him that I’m here doing social work. He said, and I quote, “I thought that all Americans just wanted power and money.” I’m in no way a cultural ambassador, but I’m happy to challenge a few people’s concept of America.

1) My role at Ujjivan: It’s hard to know what kind of role you could possibly fill at your NGO before getting there. In my case, the level of responsibility and diversity of work assigned from the start pleasantly surprised me. I’m focusing on communication projects as diverse as managing press around a visit from the Dutch royal family, to researching, writing and designing communication pieces used in the field to educate our microfinance customers about our loan products.

If you’re interested in reading more about my experiences, check out my personal blog at I’m attaching a few of my favorite photos taken since coming here.

-Jimmy Ossman

Top : Me giving a child a polio vaccine during orientation.
Center: A microfinance customer at her vegetable stand.
Bottom: Microfinance customer at free health clinic.

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