CASI Student Blog
Now that I’ve spent a few days at the Kendra (which translates to ‘center’ and is the informal name for the SPS campus where we live with about 30 other SPS employees and interns), I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on the daily routine. Our days are most easily parceled out by meals times. Everyone eats breakfast in ‘the mess’ [hall] beginning sometime in the 8-9am window, and then heads off to their daily activities. Around 1pm there is a break for lunch, which is eaten in the mess or from a pre-packed tiffin (lunch box packed by the cooks) if off campus. Around 4:30pm there is an optional chai break to space out the afternoon, and then finally from 8 or 9pm onwards we all eat dinner together in the mess or on the back patio if it’s cool enough.
Between these routine meals we interns have been receiving orientation sessions for each of SPS’s many programs. On Thursday we were given a thorough tour of the Kendra then we met with two of the founders and talked about the origins of SPS, which began over two decades ago. On Friday we finally ventured off the Kendra for the first time to visit a few nearby project sites in the neighboring village of Neemkheda to learn more about SPS’s watershed, agriculture, poultry, and clothing company programs. I have included my notebook entry about our visits below; feel free to read/skim it or simply look at the pictures attached on the photostream link (no promises on writing quality though, I copied it straight from my notebook)!
Overall the adjustment to life in India has been one with ups and downs. The sweltering days (it was 113 degrees out the day we landed in Indore) are not something to take lightly, I don’t think I’ve stopped sweating since I’ve arrived! Additionally, learning to take bucket showers, dealing with frequent power outages and fickle wifi, and finding baby lizards just about everywhere are definitely taking some getting used to. On the other hand, eating amazing homemade Indian food three times a day (+ afternoon chai breaks!), wearing only super comfortable Indian clothing from Kumbaya, and getting to know the friendly, intelligent people who work for SPS have all been wonderful new experiences. Each day thus far has been chalk full of learning, both formally through our orientation sessions and informally as we chat over meals; I can’t wait to continue this learning process and start working on my project in the coming weeks! Until next time!
Also if you feel so inclined to see more pictures check out my photostream: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0g5nhQSTiLTpt
**Unfortunately due to spotty Internet this post has been delayed a few days from when I wrote it Saturday (5/21), so please ignore any date/time inconsistencies!
Friday 5/20 Site Visits:
- We first visited the site of the first and largest dam SPS has helped to construct. The dam is currently almost empty as it hasn’t rained in months; however it will soon fill up when the monsoons arrive sometime next month. This dam was built in 2007 after almost 4 years of planning. Engineers helped to determine the most effective location for the dam within the entire catchment area. Ultimately the present location was chosen as it is close to a village called Neemkheda and is atop sandstone, which holds water adequately (as opposed to other rocks like dolomite which is under the downstream village) thus the dam can effectively recharge the groundwater in the area. However, although choosing the physical location and determining the best way to build the dam took time; the largest hurdle was determining how to properly allocate the costs and benefits of the dam.
- It was decided that the villagers were to cover 10% of the costs of construction, thus the people had to decide who would pay what. Ultimately it was decided that the people living closest, thus benefiting the most would pay more and the people living further away would pay less. The people were able to pay in free labor, donation of materials, or cash. An even larger problem was what to do with the 7 families who lived on the area where the dam was proposed to be built. Luckily the people eventually agreed to be relocated to a nearby area. However, in the end the largest cost of the dam construction was relocating these families.
- Once all of the planning was completed, the physical dam only took 45 days to build!
- Before the dam was created most people in the area were only able to grow one crop per year as they only had adequate water during the monsoon. Now, with the added groundwater that the dam provides, essentially all the people in the area are able to grow at least two crops per year; a huge increase in productivity and income! In measurable terms the dam has increased the land able to support a second crop by 800%.
- After visiting the dam we toured around the attached poultry and agriculture area. This areas is used as a trial/demonstration/teaching grounds to try new crops and teach the people of the area more about integrated agriculture. There are two chicken coops where chicks are raised until they are of size to be sold in the market. The coops serve as a teaching facility to show others that raising chickens can be a successful and practical income generating activity. The coop shed, equipment, feed, and chicks have been grouped into a loan product for Self Help Group members for $14,000 rupees (~$210); a very reasonable rate.
- Beyond the coops, the area has a nursery that is currently growing plants to be distributed to local farmers for very cheap rates, new plant species planted as trials for the region, and a demonstration area to teach agriculture techniques such as:
- planting herbs around trees to ensure income for the time before the tree fruits
- planting easily degradable, nitrogen-fixing plants around the perimeter of a field to act as a barrier as well as to provide nutrients
- how to create a slurry of cow dung, urine and water to make an easily absorbable natural fertilizer
- We then visited a pomegranate farm run by three villagers who are brothers that is also used as an example of SPS’s promoted techniques. The farm has drip irrigation systems throughout that were purchased with the help of Self Help Group loans and government subsidies. The farm shows many of the techniques SPS teaches, such as the cow dung slurry process, in practice.
- After the pomegranate farm we visited another trial field run by SPS associated farmers where we saw compost bins, and many different plants such as green lentils and eggplants being grown!
- Finally we visited the original Kumbaya workshop. Kumbaya is the clothing and crafts brand run by SPS. It was started as a way to give women employment opportunities outside of the home. Sadly, soon after the workshop was first built it was burnt to the ground by the men of the village who felt threatened by having women leaving the home and working for the first time. Luckily, a few months after it was burnt down, the people of the village who realized the potential of the factory rebuilt it and it has been in operation ever since.
- The workshop also functions as a training center. Any woman can apply to come in and receive 3 months of free training. After the three months are over she can either decide to stay and work for the brand and receive additional training, or leave and hopefully work from home with her new skills. The center currently employs 35 women whom are each guaranteed at least 300 days of work per year. The women are paid for each piece they produce; at a rate decided by the women themselves. Unfortunately due to space capacity Kumbaya cannot take every single woman who wants to learn, thus they have a simple application process in which they determine who needs it most. Thus, first priority is given to people with disabilities who could not work in the fields, second is given to women who are in households that have no other source of income generation, and third is given to women who show a lot of desire and interest. Kumbaya products are sold in shops all over India as well as internationally. One of the first large orders actually went to a shop in Los Angeles, USA!
It’s hard to think that I have only known my fellow Aravind interns for less than a week—it feels like it has been so much longer. We’ve already had so many cool experiences together that I can’t really imagine spending my summer here with another group of people. We explored a huge array of sights in Delhi, and had a day trip out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, before we settled into Madurai.
Being in Madurai been a very different experience from what I am used to at home. I think all of us are thankful for our AC and fan-filled rooms, but the heat in India is definitely something that requires some acclimation. Madurai is not as hot as Delhi was (where, fun fact, it was not only the hottest it would be during the whole year, but was also historically breaking records for its heat waves) but it’s still a very different environment. Despite it all, we have not been slowed down in our sightseeing or our work. And that brings me to the reason why the title of this post addresses an elephant in the room.
Our group had one of the coolest experiences last night. We went to the Meenakshi Temple, which is world-renowned in Madurai, and had the opportunity to take part in a puja. A puja, for those who do not know, is “the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals”. We didn’t stumble upon any normal puja though; we were lucky enough to become a part of a huge puja that celebrated a holiday in the South Indian calendar. Our group was sitting peacefully and meditating in the corner, when all of a sudden, we heard lots of loud noise coming from a swarm of people running towards us with torches and a huge lit up brass idol. We decided to take part in this puja and started circling around the temple with this group. It was incredibly crowded and we had to run to keep up with the pace; people were pushing and shoving to get to the front but we weren’t sure why. Before we know it, we found ourselves ahead of everyone, leading the, and what do we see but an elephant at the head of this crowd within the temple. This elephant was the object of everyone’s attention, as he was considered to be holy and a good luck charm. It was incredible to see people united by a strong faith and belief, and the beauty of the Meenakshi temple certainly helped. This is a point where I want to say words do not do this experience justice—so if you see me when I come back to the states, please ask me to show you the video I was able to take of us being a part of the crowd!
Aside from the culture shock India has brought, I have also started to see why Aravind is such a respected and well-known institution. This place is even more amazing than I had imagined. Just coming into the hospital and seeing the visceral impact the institution has on the community is awe-inspiring. Our first day was orientation, and we were introduced to the three divisions of the hospital—the paid section, further divided into the inpatient and outpatient centers, and then the free hospital. We met with some faculty members and learned about how Aravind was born out of the pure vision its founder, fondly called “Dr. V”, had for the world. The vision and mission of Aravind is simple, and is consistently re-iterated around the premises—to eliminate needless blindness by providing compassionate and high quality eye care for all”. We spent a large part of today seeing how Aravind is able to keep its costs low by manufacturing many of its devices and lenses on its own through its Aurolabs facilities. We were even able to see the vision centers Aravind established to reach deeper into the surrounding communities to make a difference.
This first week has made me even more excited for the next ones that follow. I can’t wait to see what Pondicherry, my next and final location, has in store for me. Until then!
Hi CASI! My name is Meghana and I am a rising junior in the College. I am double majoring in Psychology and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I will be interning at Shahi Exports this summer. Shahi is an integrated textile manufacturing company, and a majority (~70%) of the workers at the factories are women. Further, many of the women workers are migrants from different states in the country, or from rural areas. These conditions call for intersectional studies to understand the ways in which these women workers experience gender, class, caste, health, and so much more. Primarily, I am interested in studying the Prevention of Sexual Harassment trainings done at Shahi and how they are received and used in the setting. I am also interested in the role of social support in mental health issues, specifically with relation to gender based violence. After understanding my access to the factory and my limitations, I hope to work on one of these topics, or find a way to integrate all of them.
I will be working at the Shahi factory in Bengaluru, India. Bengaluru is in the state of Karnataka, which borders my home states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Home has always been a complicated topic for me, as it perhaps is for many diaspora. While the city of Hyderabad is my home in India and a hometown for me, it is also only one of my home bases. Bengaluru on the other hand, is close to Hyderabad but has a completely different culture, language, climate, and more. In many ways, this summer I am returning home to India. At the same time, I am leaving my home in the U.S. behind and also entering a new and unfamiliar city. I am home, but not entirely–I am homeish. Most importantly, however, I am excited to learn, grow, and hopefully contribute something respectfully to this community, factory, and its workers.
Until next time!
Hey everyone! Greetings from the small suburb of Ellicott City, Maryland! My name is Tina and I’m a rising junior concentrating in Finance and Social Impact with minors in International Relations and Religious Studies. I’m beyond excited to be working in Bangalore with Janalakshmi this summer. Janalakshmi is a microfinance company that falls under the Jana Urban Foundation, which is a nonprofit think tank that promotes financial inclusion as a path to empowerment. This aligns perfectly with my interest in how business can be a force for good without disregarding financial returns. I first became aware of the nuances of mission based for-profit organizations after taking a course called Knowledge for Social Impact. It showed me how to think outside the box of traditional nonprofits, and I soon learned about the inefficiencies and leadership challenges many of these organizations face. As I understood more about microfinance, and the good, the bad, and the ugly in the industry, I became more fascinated by its potential. Interning with Janalakshmi will allow me to learn by doing, and I feel so honored to have this amazing opportunity today.
I hope to use this summer to remind myself of the importance of serving others before I head down what is likely to be a very corporate career path. I think seeing the impact and understanding the role I play in an organization like Janalakshmi will help keep my own ambitions in context. I’m certainly going to enjoy spending time in India as well. The change of pace from my hectic Penn schedule to something more free and spontaneous will help me take a step back and live in the moment. I’m a hopeless romantic, and it has been something I’ve always longed to do. Traveling and taking more (calculated) risks are also high on my agenda, and India is a place where I will likely have little opportunity to visit after college. I’ve never gone abroad on my own before, so I’m confident this will be an exciting and humbling journey. Most importantly, I believe the dynamics of everyday interaction shift subtly when the culture and location changes. I hope to meet people who will challenge my perspectives and make friends who will shape me into a more mature, empathetic, and thoughtful person.
I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by the literary works of the likes of Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, watching The Story of India in between my packing. I’m thinking about a twenty-hour flight and the blistering heat of May in New Delhi. I’m feeling mounting excitement streaked with a bit of uncertainty. How can anyone manage their expectations when the opportunity of a lifetime is finally within reach?
Thank you for reading this blog and for entertaining the rambling thoughts of a girl with her head in the clouds.
Hi! My name is Mallory Kirby; I am a rising senior in the College majoring in Health and Societies, concentrating in Public Health, and minoring in Chemistry. Throughout my time at Penn I have found myself navigating between pre-medical ambitions and an underlying focus and passion for community health—part of what drew me to CASI was the opportunity to both apply my knowledge and passion from the classroom to a real world setting.
Since I am entering my last year at Penn, this summer as a CASI intern will likely be my last Penn affiliated international program. I entered Penn three years ago excited to be a global representative of my school, looking to augment my classroom lessons with diverse “real-world” experiences. Because I was not able to study abroad, I have used my college summers to invest my time in varied international pursuits; I believe that the types of internships I’ve pursued throughout the years reflect my maturation as a student and global citizen. After my freshman year I volunteered as an international consultant with a women’s weaving cooperative in Alto Palena, Los Lagos, Chile. This month-long program was my first time traveling alone internationally, and helped shape my expectations and work ethic for college internships. Last summer, I lived and worked in Aachen, Germany as part of a research exchange program for 10 weeks. My research in Germany was very bio-medically focused; in many ways, this summer reaffirmed that my true interests lie in public and community health, not in the lab. These experiences have (hopefully) prepared me for the many challenges and rewards I anticipate from this summer!
(Mountains from my time in Chile!)
I will be working with Meghana and Alexi at Shahi Exports, an integrated textile manufacturing company, in Bangalore. After speaking with Anant, one of our supervisors, I’m approaching my time at Shahi with the aim of researching “non technical factors that affect the efficiency of a factory.” Using my HSOC background, I hope to research the non-medical aspects of health that then contribute to both community and factory functionality, efficiency, and cohesion. Part of what makes Shahi such a great fit for me is this focus on holistic contributors to both health and factory efficiency. I am excited to approach this summer not with rigidly defined ideals of public health, but rather with an attitude of resourcefulness, flexibility, and cooperation.
I hope to engage with female workers in particular throughout this summer; I’m not sure yet what my project will focus on, but I’m hoping it will involve women’s health and sanitation. I am beyond excited to get to know my fellow CASI interns, as well as our contacts at Shahi! While I am (extremely) worried about my ability to handle the heat, especially in Delhi, I can’t wait to take in the sites, smells, tastes, and sounds of India while becoming a more globally integrated citizen of the world!
Everyone already knows about the part where I love working with students and traveling abroad, but what my close friends and family really wonder is why I choose India. It is the question that always seems to pop up when my mom and I are talking during Young and Restless commercials or during casual 2 am conversations at IHOP with my “sisters.” (note: I call my closest friends my sisters because we have been together for many many years.) They always ask me why I did not apply for a program in Ghana, Nigeria, or Senegal where I would have relatives nearby. Not only would it be easier because of the lack of language barrier, but I would be working from the comfort of my own home. Yet, I always laugh and tell them the bland superficial answer that I want to explore the world.
My name is Faty Kane and I am currently a rising sophomore in the Wharton School of business who has no idea what to do in the future. However, I do know what I am passionate about, which is why I really wanted to be involved with Leap Academy. Wait, did I tell you how much I really love working with students? Well, I do! I love giving students, of all ages, the opportunity to further their studies and relate to them in many ways. This program not only allows that, but it gives me the chance to explore India. Through this endeavor, I hope to better tie the things that I am passionate about and my Wharton Studies and finally get my life together!!!
Now a list of things I want to do in India:
- Explore Mumbai
- Visit Taj Mahal
- Go to Jaipur
- Take a bhangra dance class
- Take a selfie on the mountains
- Visit other CASI sites
- Learn enough of the language to order food
- Not passing out from heat stroke
Of course they are many more things I want to do, but I just don’t know it yet. But I will keep you updated as I discover more.
I have about 6 hours till I board my flight to India. Very psyched and nervous about this trip, but I am confident it will be awesome. I am a bit concerned about my diet because my partner just told me that most meals are vegetarian, and as a huge carnivore, it hurt my stomach to think about it. But that’s no matter. As I reflect back on the question why did I do this to myself? The answer is simple. It’s because I want to find myself in a completely unfamiliar place. Funny huh?
Hi CASI Blog! My name is Jacob Berexa and I am a third-year undergraduate studying South Asia Studies and Linguistics. This summer I am excited to be working for LEAP Skills Academy in Yamuna Nagar, Haryana.
Originally from Brentwood, Tennessee, I was drawn to Penn mostly because of its strong South Asia Studies Dept. My interest in India began early in high school and after senior year I had the opportunity to participate in NSLI-Y, a six-week Hindi immersion program in Pune, India. Since then I was able to go back to India last summer for another Hindi language program (CLS) in Jaipur. I have also taken classes in Marathi here at Penn for the past year (Marathi is a regional language spoken mostly in the state of Maharashtra in Western India).
My academic interests lie mostly in Indian language-in-education policy and educational linguistics, a field I am interesting in pursuing graduate work in. Working at a skills development start-up like LEAP this summer will be an amazing opportunity to explore some of these questions and gain experience in an up-and-coming part of the education & development space.
I am looking forward to many things this summer—speaking Hindi, having awesome home Indian food and Indo-Chinese food (India’s best kept secret), negotiating with rickshaw-walas, visiting beautiful temples, the list is endless! India is full of wonderful surprises and I’m sure there will be many this summer
Chalo, India mein milte hain!
Hi everyone! My name is Camilo Toro and I’m a rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in the Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Healthcare Management and Chemistry. Although my studies might define me on paper, my true passions lie in investing random scientific research (from the physical explanations of consciousness to gravitational waves in space), learning different languages and cultures, discovering new music, and getting too stressed about FC Barcelona’s upcoming fixtures. For some reason I have a compulsive need to explore new places, so I am beyond excited to head to Madurai, India this summer to work at Aravind Eye Care Systems for 10 weeks.
This will actually be my second time to India. My first time in India was in 2010, when I went on a school trip to volunteer at a plastic surgery hospital in Varanasi associated with Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides free cleft lip/palate surgeries to those in need. That trip to Varanasi sparked my interest in healthcare and exposed me to a completely new perspective on the role of equity in health treatments and access. For this reason, it is even more fitting that I will be returning to India to work at Aravind in Madurai, where I will have the opportunity to conduct my own research on quality of life in patients with rare eye conditions.
Although Madurai is home to the founding hospital, it is just one part of a network of eye care centers in India that forms the world’s largest and most productive eye-care service group. Since 1976, Aravind has treated over 40 million patients and performed over 4 million surgeries, in large part due to its outreach efforts, efficient operating systems, and internal supply chain. Besides its incredible business model, what most attracted me to Aravind was its mission to eradicate needless blindness through by developing a health system that delivers high-quality affordable care to people of all socioeconomic classes.
This will be my first experience living and working in a place so drastically different from where I live and study, but I can’t wait to face the challenges ahead. I am also excited to learn more about Indian culture (but already giving up on learning Tamil in 10 weeks), travel to new destinations, and eat everything in sight.
Everyone seems to make a joke about how hot it will be, but I have already been in Delhi for a few days and survived trekking the Agra Fort in 115-degree weather, so its all uphill from here…plus there is nothing worse than winter. I’ll have more soon!
Hi! My name is Rhea Singh and I am a rising senior in the college studying Health and Society, concentrating in global health, and minoring in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.
At the end of this calendar year, I will have spent 17 weeks in India. 17 weeks! That is 1/3 of the year! In my motherland’s motherland…my parents and my family is from Guyana in South America so we’re ethnically Guyanese, but we’re racially Indian. My identity has always been difficult to articulate, so I find it so fascinating that I’ve gravitated to India of all places in the world. This past winter I was in Delhi and Kolkata studying women’s empowerment and sex workers with Dr. Raili Roy from the South Asia Studies department, and most recently I’ve travelled to Delhi for my cousin’s wedding. I was only in India for 2 weeks at a time previously, and at the end of each trip, I was definitely ready to come home.
This summer I’ll be interning with the Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD):Sidhbari in Himachal Pradesh, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. CORD is a well known for its development schemes through women’s groups, agricultural and nutritional advances and self-empowerment talking groups for over 20 years. I am so excited to be spending my summer there (even if it doesn’t seem like it…I’m leaving for the airport in less than 12 hours and I have not packed a thing)! I hope to engage with children, teenagers and women and further improve agricultural ideology and nutritional diversity. My passion in global health is food, and food systems, because I believe that what we eat is our most basic form of primary medicine.
I cannot wait to hop on the plane tomorrow and begin what I’m sure will be one of the most memorable, life changing and transformative summers I’ll ever have.
Dancing my way through this little thing called life!
Hi friends! My name is Patrick Dowd, and I have just completed the first year of my master’s program in international educational development at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Originally, I am from East Bend, North Carolina, a one-stop light town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This summer, I will be traveling to Ladakh to research with the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). SECMOL was founded in 1988 to engage in educational reforms in Ladakh, where educational performance was incredibly low. Though the organization has branched out to engage in more activities, such as sustainable development and volunteer tourism, the heart of their work remains Ladakhi educational reforms. I want to research with SECMOL because my work at the GSE centers on indigenous language revitalization and indigenous education, specifically in the culturally Tibetan world and the Himalayas.
I first became invested in the Himalayas when I was awarded a Fulbright grant from 2012-2013 to research with Tibetan communities in northern India. Including that time, I spent more than three years living with Tibetan communities in the Himalayas of India and Nepal, studying Tibetan language, culture, and Buddhism under highly learned Tibetan lamas and scholars. I continue to feel humbled when I consider the depth of learning coupled with the profound modesty I found in my Tibetan tutors. I was also so impressed to find philosophers who believed ethical behavior and meditative experience to be inextricable from the worldview they professed; Buddhist philosophy was not mere words on the page but was something to be experienced, to be lived. I found this combination of learning, ethics and modesty awe-inspiring and it has kept me returning to the Himalayas for these years.
In the Tibetan Buddhist world, I found an incredibly sophisticated educational system discreet from the western education of my life to that point. Meeting my lamas felt like discovering people like Socrates and Jesus were still alive and teaching, cultivating profound learning and precious human qualities that they would share with any student interested enough to listen. For this reason, I felt saddened to learn of the educational crisis in the culturally Tibetan world of Ladakh.
Government-sponsored education was only introduced to Ladakh in the 1970s. Prior to this time, the only formalized education occurred in the monasteries and nunneries. When the Indian government introduced modern education, it was based entirely on the Indian curriculum, which in turn was based on the colonially-inherited British curriculum. Nothing in the curriculum spoke to the unique language, landscape, culture and history of Ladakh. The result was widespread educational failure; in 1998, a shocking 95% of Ladakhi students failed the all-important grade 10 matriculation exam.
Recognizing this educational crisis, a group of young Ladakhis formed SECMOL. SECMOL realized that Ladakhi students had no chance of succeeding as long as there was such a great divorce between their lives and the classroom. As long as the classroom was such an alien environment, teaching foreign concepts in incomprehensible languages, Ladakhi students would continue failing. In response to this situation, SECMOL initiated programs in curriculum development and teacher training, with the aim of creating Ladakhi-centric, culturally appropriate education. While still teaching the required standardized Indian curriculum, this education served as an important supplement. It allowed students to feel affirmed in their landscape, language and culture and see the relationship between formalized education and the life outside the classroom. Their work has been met with great success, such that between 2003-2006, 50% of students in Leh district passed the exam.
As someone who has benefitted tremendously from a traditional Tibetan education, I am committed to ensuring Himalayan communities are provided with the same opportunity. I find it an unbearable irony that I, a white man from America, spent years learning to read classical Tibetan texts and yet Ladakhi students, who speak this language as their mother tongue, are not taught literacy in their own language. I believe SECMOL provides an important model for how culturally appropriate education can not only improve performance on standardized tests and curriculum but also affirm students in their own language and culture. I hope my time researching with SECMOL will equip me with the skills necessary to bring similar education projects to other places in the Tibetan-speaking Himalayas.
I couldn’t be more excited about this summer and all that I hope to learn. If you have any inclination to visit the roof of the world, please visit!
Hi! My name is Alexi Chacon, and I’m about to embark on adventure in India this summer. This will be the farthest away that I have ever been from home and I can’t wait to see what unexpected and new experiences are in store for me.
I’m a rising sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. These past few weeks have been absolute whirlwind with finals, coming back home in Los Angeles, and getting everything ready for India. Since I have come to Penn, I have felt as if my life has been non-stop in the exposure I get to different experiences, perspectives and people. I am beyond excited to continue this exposure this summer in India.
This summer I will be interning at Shahi Exports in Bangalore. The main focus of the internship is to carry out research in the effort to design interventions that increase the well-being of the factory workers that Shahi Exports employs. When I heard of this opportunity, I immediately applied because the internship would allow me apply my passion for social justice in a completely new setting. Previously, I had advocated for equal access to education both locally and globally through a direct partnership with Human Rights Watch. Coming to Penn, I continued this involvement in global issues particularly human rights issues, by joining the Academic Affairs branch of the International Affairs Association. I also began to conduct research for Perry World House on the topics of migration and urbanization. It’s this research that led me to learn of the struggles that migrant workers face. My goal is to help address the struggles that migrant workers who work at Shahi Exports face. This could be through addressing mental health and community building.
I am so ready to throw myself into the culture that India is so well appreciated for. Since I’ve gotten the internship, I’ve been spending tons of time reading up on the culture and staring at countless pictures of Bangalore. It’s very rare that people get the opportunity to completely immerse themselves into a new culture for an extended period of time. I intend to take full advantage of this opportunity, particularly by journaling.
I can’t wait to share all of these experiences with you! The next time I post, any pre-conceived notion I have of these next ten weeks will probably be altered.
Hi everyone! My name is Aditi Ahuja and I am a rising junior from New York majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. I just flew into India four days ago and have loved everything, from the food to the sites (everything except for the weather that is)! But now the short vacation is over and it is time to begin my internship with Aravind Eye Care. This notion still makes me fairly nervous, but more than that, after all the anticipation, I am excited to finally begin. I am one of the scarce pre-veterinary students at Penn, and normally I should be doing a veterinary internship over the summer, but when I heard of the internship with Aravind Eye Care, I knew that it would be an amazing opportunity.
I have always wanted to be a veterinarian and have interned at many veterinary hospitals and clinics. Over the previous summer, I shadowed a veterinary ophthalmologist, and I became interested in the intricate and life-changing world of eye care. I fell in love with this field that restores vision using a delicate balance of surgery and medical treatment, but at the same time, I became more acquainted with the struggle owners face to pay for necessary treatments. This is why I first became interested in the Aravind internship. Aravind Eye Care is an inspirational organization whose goal is to eliminate needless blindness in India, regardless of cost. In 2015, the Aravind Eye Hospital network completed approximately 3.5 million outpatient treatments and over 401,000 surgeries with an estimated average cost of less than twenty dollars per surgery. I know that interning at Aravind will allow me to immerse myself in ophthalmic medicine and to study the model that provides such outstanding care at low cost to patients. I cannot wait to learn from and be motivated by the dedicated staff around me. I just hope that I am able to contribute something in return.
However, the ophthalmic aspect and the ambitious goal of ubiquitous affordable treatment were not the only things that drew me to this internship; its location in Madurai, the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, India, was a huge factor. I have always wanted to develop a sense of “my own India”. All my life I have traveled to India, and I have loved being a tourist and visiting family, but I know that I see a restricted image of India through the eyes of others. This will be the first time I have some degree of freedom within India, and I want to explore as much as I can, and take in the unique scenery and the deep culture with my own eyes. Of course, I still appreciate many of the same things that I have always loved about India, such as the fantastic food, family and friends, etc. But after traveling to Agra and around Delhi with my fellow interns, I am already starting to develop my own appreciation for the culture and the heritage of this country. I hope that over the next ten weeks I will be able to truly find my home here in India.
Hello! My name is Thomas Uhler, and I decided that moving 500 miles away for my first year of college wasn’t adventurous enough, so I’m going to India for the summer.
I’m a rising sophomore (Class of 2019) in the Life Sciences and Management program, studying biology with a minor in chemistry from the College of Arts & Sciences and studying business in Wharton with a concentration in healthcare management. I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan but I haven’t felt a sliver of regret about coming to Philadelphia. I’m looking forward to my next three years at Penn, but at the moment I’m fixated on my coming summer in India.
When I first heard of it, the Aravind internship seemed to be the perfect fit for my interests. The hands on analytical role of the internship aligns with my research interest from studying science, while Aravind’s proven organization provides a great example for how healthcare can be provided on the business side. At the same time, my interest in medicine, developed by joining Penn’s EMT service and volunteering at the Presbyterian Hospital, is further motivated by the hospital environmental at Aravind. Although I hope that I can contribute to Aravind with my ideas, I have a feeling that I’ll be learning much more from Aravind than I could return.
Work aside, the culture shock from Madurai is something that I’m looking forward to. I know that pictures from Google Images fail to capture the essential details that make a place unique. A vapor cloak from humidity, the intimidating presence of a towering temple, the glow of the moon cast across a forest, a sigh of relief as clouds drain. I hope to be taken by surprise by the beauty of India but also to ease into a state of comfort where I can appreciate the country the way that its residents do. Throughout the summer, I’ll be keeping a journal; using it as a way to both meditate on my thoughts and reflect on experiences in contrast to earlier days.
Well, adventure awaits. When I write again, my perspective on India will most likely be turned upside down. Until next time!
Hi everyone! My name is Bela Parekh and I will be interning at Aravind Eye Care System this summer, based out of the team in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. I will confess that the first time I ever came to India 10 years ago I tried to create a blog with my siblings….we maybe wrote 3 posts and it has not since kept up. I hope no one, myself included, ever finds it again. This blog, however, will be a blessing to my parents, who have implored me endlessly to find ways to stay in touch with them while abroad. So Mom and Dad, this is a great way for you to know I have internet connection and to begin the assault of FaceTimes and iMessages and Whatsapps to check in with me. I open up that invitation to everyone that reads this blog as well.
This post is introductory, so let me also go ahead with that. I just finished up my sophomore year at Penn and am in shock that my time in college is half over. I am a part of the Life Sciences and Management dual degree program where I study Biological Basis of Behavior in the College and Healthcare Management/Finance at Wharton. I come from Montville, New Jersey, which is a wonderful town except for the fact it is mainly known for also being home to the Real Housewife that just got out of jail (a travesty, really). My family is all from North India, so I am super excited to be in the south for the next 10 weeks exploring a completely different culture.
What drew me to Aravind is their amazing business model and their message. My parents are both ophthalmologists and as a result I’ve grown up staring at different eye magazines, learning about different surgeries, and hearing the complaints about how expensive treatments can be. Aravind seemed like the perfect fit for the next part in my journey of learning about how to provide universal healthcare. I am incredibly excited to spend a summer learning from what is sure to be an inspiring group of people. I am especially looking forward to falling further in love with India and be back in the motherland.
I cannot wait to see what the next 10 weeks will bring me. I bought a copy of “Infinite Vision”, the book written on Aravind, to learn more about the organization and it has only made me more and more excited to go. Besides the experience, I look forward to trying different foods, learning new languages, exploring a new culture, and making fantastic friends for a lifetime!
Hello! My name is Swathi Raman and I am a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Health and Societies and looking to go on to medical school. I am from Glen Mills, PA, a cute little suburb outside of Philly, and have somehow always stayed close to home during my summers and college life (not at all due to my lovely mother!). Therefore, I cannot wait to spend my summer abroad (for the first time a little more than a car ride away) in the lovely state of Himachal Pradesh.
This summer, I will be interning with the Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD)-Sidhbari partnership and will be exploring how this organization uses self-empowerment and participatory initiatives to further sustainable, integrated development. CORD has been addressing important public health issues, such as education, rehabilitation, and economic empowerment for women, for over 20 years and has been teaching people through self-help groups. Personally, I have always been interested in researching the non-medical determinants of health, including the social and cultural aspects, and cannot wait to see how CORD works toward social justice and proper healthcare access.
Having the opportunity to explore these issues in my motherland is especially exciting. For years, I have been a tourist and have had the opportunity to take away so much from this dynamic, breathtaking country. However, now I am super excited to finally give back and learn from extraordinary people who have been striving to make a difference at the foothills of the Himalayas and beyond.
As the days till departure dwindle, I am filled with anticipation and curiosity as to what the next 10 weeks will hold. I look forward to learning the new language, getting to know the CORD and CASI families, hiking through the beautiful Himalayan hills, and finally living simply yet fully!
We are delighted to welcome the CASI Class of 2016 to the growing CASI Student Programs Community!
This year’s CASI internship class is 18 strong and we also are proud to announce our 3 Travel Funds for Research Winners. Students hail from four schools at Penn and across various disciplines. It has been a whirlwind of a semester but our students have made it through their finals, completed CASI Orientation, and with visas in hand are ready for India!
Students will be arriving in India throughout the month – keep your eyes peeled for their introductions coming this week!
Congratulations to all of our 2016 winners!
2016 CASI Interns
Aditi Ahuja C’18, Biology, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Jacob Berexa C’18, Linguistics, South Asia Studies, LEAP Skills Academy, Yamuna Nagar, Haryana
Alexi, Chacon C’19, Major Undecided, Shahi Exports, Bangalore, Karnataka
Tianhao Gao W’18, Finance, Social Impact, BEPP, Jana Urban Foundation, Bangalore, Karnataka
Brittani Gilbert W C’17, Environmental Policy, Management, Statistics, MMTC-PAMP, Mewat District, Haryana
Geneva Gondak C’18, Environmental Studies, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bagli, Dewas District, Madhya Pradesh
Katerine Jimenez C’17, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Jana Urban Foundation, Bangalore, Karnataka
Faty Kane W’19, Major Undecided, LEAP Skills Academy, Yamuna Nagar, Haryana
Mallory Kirby C’17, Health and Societies, Shahi Exports, Bangalore, Karnataka
Nimay Kulkarni SEAS’17, Bioengeering, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
Meghana Nallajerla C’18, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Psychology, Shahi Exports, Bangalore, Karnataka
Bela Parekh C W’18, Vagelos Program in Life Science and Management, Biological Basis of Behavior, Healthcare Management, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
Bevan Pearson C’18, Earth Sciences, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bagli, Dewas District, Madhya Pradesh
Swathi Raman C’18, Health and Societies, CORD-Sidhbari, Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh
Parth Shah C’18, Biochemistry, Economics, MMTC-PAMP, Mewat District, Haryana
Rhea Singh C’17, Health and Societies, CORD-Sidhbari, Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh
Camilo Toro C’17, Biological Basis of Behavior, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Thomas Uhler C W’19, Vagelos Program in Life Science and Management, Biology, Healthcare Management, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
2016 CASI Travel Funds for Research Winners
Baishakh Chakrabarti, School of Arts and Sciences, Ph.D. Candidate (3rd year), South Asia Studies
Gambling and Speculative Practices in Colonial India, 1867-1925
Ishani Dasgupta, School of Arts and Sciences, Ph.D. Candidate (3rd year), South Asia Studies
Compassionate Martyrs: Understanding the Role of Compassion and Martyrdom in Tibetan Politics
Patrick Dowd, Graduate School of Education, MEd Candidate, Expected Graduation 2017
Education From Ladakh, For Ladakh: An Exploration of SECMOL’s Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Pedagogy
Hello world! My name is Geneva Gondak and I will be interning at Samaj Pragati Sahyog (SPS), in rural Madhya Pradesh this summer. Over the past week as I said my goodbyes to friends and acquaintances alike, multiple people asked how they could contact me or learn more about what I will be up to this summer. My response was always that 1. I should have limited internet access and thus will be able to receive emails (and eventually respond, no promises on speed here!), and that 2. I will be keeping this blog to detail my experiences. Surprisingly enough, many people asked me to send them a link. So, hey there friends, family and strangers alike: welcome to my CASI blog!
As this first post is meant to be an introduction, let me introduce myself. I just finished my second year at Penn, where I am majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Policy & Application. I am also minoring in Environmental Science and may be trying to pick up a language certificate in Spanish. I have always been interested in India and luckily had the chance to visit for the first time earlier this year. However, I was not able to visit Madhya Pradesh where SPS is located. The SPS headquarters is in Bagli, which is approximately 40 miles east of the city of Indore; however, its reach spans throughout hundreds of villages within the state.
My interests in environmental issues and sustainable development are what initially drew me to SPS. I am extremely interested in the complex, interdisciplinary issues that concern our natural environment, especially the relationship between the environment and development. SPS is an organization dedicated to improving rural livelihoods in central India through a variety of initiatives. The organization facilitates village self-help groups, runs agriculture and livestock programs, implements watershed and irrigation projects, runs a public food distribution program, employs women through for its clothing brand, and contributes to research and state/national policy advocacy.
As I boarded my flight this morning it finally really hit me that this is in fact really happening, which left me full of excitement and a bit of nervousness over what is to come in the next 12 weeks. Anyways, at this point (hour 8 of my 15.5 hour flight…) I simply cannot wait to touch down in Delhi and embrace the 111-degree day that is waiting for me! Bye until next time!
Hi everyone! My name is Bevan and I am a rising junior from Philadelphia. I am majoring in Environmental Science in the college. I’ll be working with Samaj Pragati Sahayog in the Dewas District of Madhya Pradesh this summer. SPS is an organization that aims to improve rural livelihoods by: managing the local watershed, helping farmers through agriculture and livestock programs, facilitating self-help groups, empowering women through garment production, and decreasing undernourishment through public meal programs.
Within my environmental science field of study, I am especially interested in sustainable agriculture, food justice, and sustainable development. I also love to travel, and have spent summers studying language in China and France. I chose to participate in a CASI internship because my interests align so well with what SPS does, and because of the location. I wanted to spend my summer in India because in the future, I hope to have an international career in sustainability. Because India is soon to be the world’s most populous country and is still largely underdeveloped in certain areas, understanding Indian culture and how grassroots organizations like SPS work will be key in looking toward a more sustainable future for India.
With regard to my work at SPS this summer, I’m most looking forward to learning more about all of the different projects SPS is working on and how this all fits together into one organization. I also look forward to making field visits to see the physical work SPS is doing with agriculture or the watershed or to interview people who benefit from SPS. I am also excited to see what sorts of products Kumbaya, the SPS clothing enterprise, has to offer (and hope to buy a lot of them!).
I’m currently sitting in the Frankfurt airport awaiting the second leg of my flight to New Delhi. Over the past fourteen hours of travel, I’ve had a lot of time to second-guess my packing choices, wonder about what awaits me in Delhi, and worry about not knowing Hindi, but I’m confident this will be a great learning experience nonetheless!
Hello everyone! Hi from Mumbai/Bombay!
I’ve spent a little over a week in the city and have met some incredible people who are doing some fascinating work in the theatre. But, I want to save my experiences in the city for my next blog post, where I’ll definitely have more than just some wide eyed enthusiasm to share.
What I do want to take you through today is a series of experiences that kept me busy in February and March. Every week, I would pack my small bag, lug my tripod and get on a train to go to the deep south of Tamil Nadu, to follow the work of a theatre company called “Manal Magudi.”
This company was founded by a man called Muruga Boopathy. He hails from a family of writers and poets, and was inspired to take up street theatre/activist theatre when Safdar Hashmi was killed in Delhi. When I read about this, I was absolutely intrigued by the strong political reverberations that emanated all the way from Delhi to a sleepy village in Tamil Nadu.
I first read about Boopathy in a newspaper article that I stumbled upon during my research. I reached out to him via email and one of his company members invited me to Boopathy’s “theatre house” in a village called Kovilpatti, in southern Tamil Nadu. My friend Radhika and I walked in to his house rather groggily after an overnight train journey. Under the shade of a neem tree, Boopathy and his company of actors did yoga and warm ups, and then moved straight into their rehearsal. They were performing the next day for the people in the village.
The Tamil word “Manal” means sand, or earth. The actors of Manal Magudi practice in a rectangular clearing on sand. In their heavily stylized and physical theatre, they are encouraged to interact with the “Manal.” This involves picking the sand up and letting it fall through their fingers, rubbing it on their chests and flinging it at other people and objects. The next day, when the actors moved to a wooden stage for the actual performance, some of them felt their performance was lacklustre because of the absence of the sand.
For each of his plays, Boopathy uses a long devising process, usually about a month or so long. Actors live together and do chores at his ancestral home, referred to as the “theatre house.” They work with indigenous instruments and art forms (such as puppets and dolls) that Boopathy has learned about through decades of travel and research in the most interior parts of Tamil Nadu. During the festival season of the Tamil calendar, he travels to various villages and observes temple rituals.
Each of his plays is usually built around a theme. I’ve seen three of them, and with their poetic language and highly physicalized movements, they evoke stories of oppression and injustice. Actors lament about the plight of construction workers who have been driven to suicide by hunger, about the shrinking seed diversity because of the use of fertilizers and genetically modified crops. Some of the concepts are quite abstract, and the Tamil so dense that it’s difficult to follow the story (despite my fluency in the language), but the visual images and the sounds still evoke a very visceral reaction.
In the ensuing weeks after my first visit to Kovilpatti, Boopathy invited me to various events and workshops. One was a workshop conducted by local puppeteers who recount various tales from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This particular group is a travelling group. In a Question and Answer session, a few of them got emotional and spoke about the financial tolls of their profession. These puppeteers only have secure employment during the festival season of the Tamil calendar, which is about six months long. During the remainder of the year, many resort to contract work in farms or construction sites. Many lamented about how retirement wasn’t really an option because the government typically never kept its promise of a monthly pension of Rs. 1500. Usually, the paperwork drags on for many years, and these artists don’t start receiving their pension until they are about 70 or so.
One man, seeing me take pictures with my camera, spoke about how he wanted to buy his son a similar device and couldn’t even dream of affording it. For me, this was the most jarring aspect of travelling between Chennai and these villages. Most of the artists in Boopathy’s troupe are not very well off, financially. When they are not rehearsing for a play with Manal Magudi, they either work for other groups or they freelance. Many of them talked about debt, about how they didn’t have enough money to send home to their families. It’s a shocking shift to come back to Chennai and be invited for a meal that costs far more than what some of these actors make in a week.
After my interviews and travels with Manal Magudi, I was invited to join the troupe in Delhi, where they were performing a play at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META). I boarded a plane with about twenty other people, some of whom had never been on a flight before. I am not a frequent flier, but I’ve travelled enough to acquire a sense of near-haughtiness on flights. I’ve picked up some rules that accentuate that trait – seat must be near the exit, only aisle seats for flights longer than one hour, don’t invite the wrath of the stewards by asking for too many things (bring your own water), look busy or fall asleep. But when I travelled with these first time fliers, I was infected by their enthusiasm. Much to the chagrin of the stewardess, there was a lot of standing up and selfie-taking and a barrage of Tamil phrases being exchanged across the length of the plane. But when the plane was ready to descend, everybody went hush and just enjoyed the view. And I realized how much of a jaded person I’ve become. When my sister and I were kids, we would be so thrilled by the prospect of flying to India to see our relatives. We would hold each other’s hand excitedly during take off, amicably decide that one would have the window seat on the “to” journey, and the other on the “from” journey. We would pilfer the in-flight magazines and look at them longingly for months afterwards, wishing for longer flights that would take us to cities more exciting and exotic than Trichy. I was served a granola bar for the first time on an in-flight meal, and I saved it for about a week. When I finally did eat it, it tasted like cardboard. I was underwhelmed. When I did eventually fly longer distances, I was struck by how everybody seemed to be in a bad mood, and so I also adopted the same attitude.
I’ve met people across this urban-rural spectrum who are very committed to theatre. The theatre that they’ve dedicated hours of their time and creativity to is quite different in each of their cases. Boopathy’s theatre is not conversation, dialogue or plot based. In Chennai, I’ve watched plays where the playwright shines through with her dazzling use of wit and plot and structure (the kind of theatre that I’ve watched the most in all my life). Each of these theatrical practices contain a world within themselves, with very different realities for their creators and actors.