CASI Student Blog
Even before I left for India on the Sobti Fellowship, I knew that I wanted to share some of my experiences through a podcast. I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts in the weeks leading up to my departure (the usual suspects – This American Life, RadioLab). And now in India, when I take my lunch break, I usually motivate myself to chop my vegetables and make myself a curry by listening to a podcast or two.
Today, I release the first episode of my podcast. Entitled Notes & Remarks, my podcast is an exploration of the various aspects of my life in India.
In today’s episode, I talk with Kalieaswari Srinivasan, a Chennai based actress. Kali has been working as a theatre artist for more than five years now, but I first heard about her when her debut film Dheepan by Jacques Audiard, garnered a lot of attention at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
Dheepan is about a family of Sri Lankan refugees who flee the civil war, arriving in France. Kali plays the female lead in the film, and for her role as Yalini, she mastered “Sri Lankan Tamil,” a dialect of Tamil quite different to that spoken in India.
As a Sri Lankan, I was naturally curious about Kali’s work in the film, but my chat with her proved to be about much more than just Dheepan. Kali’s history in theatre is rich, and replete with interesting anecdotes. As she reminds me, “the great things started happening before Dheepan.” She speaks of her experiences with a level of insight and wisdom that sometimes gave me the shivers.
After releasing the episode this morning, I discovered that Dheepan was nominated for 9 César awards yesterday!
I came home from my interview to find out that my microphone had malfunctioned soon after we started the interview. I was pretty heartbroken about it, but I was determined to salvage whatever I could of the interview. It would be a shame not to share Kali’s story.
I hope you enjoy listening to this episode!
Music: “Cute” – Bensound.com
By now you may have heard of Passport to India, a U.S. Department of State initiative to encourage and enable young Americans to study and intern in India.
Founded by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it is a sister program to the mobility initiatives 100 Thousand Strong to China and 100 Thousand Strong in the Americas.
One of the program’s major objectives is to increase interest in India at the student level. One way we hope to achieve this is through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Importance of India.
Click here to enroll (for free) in the course right now! Check out the course trailer below.
The course will feature interviews with all kinds of people, including our very own Aparna Wilder talking about the CASI student programs!
The US Ambassador to India Richard R. Verma officially launched the course on Jan 13 at the American Center in New Delhi with visiting students from Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) and the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The first week of the course is scheduled to start March 22.
Please help us promote the course by sharing it with your friends! Hope to see many of you active in the discussion forums.
“If you take just one online course this year, make it this one.”
It is difficult to think about summers in India when the blistery cold of east coast winter sets in! Around November, I start to feel a bit disconnected from my work and get caught up in looking at a calendar instead of people. But the number one reason I love my job is because I get to work with so many inspiring individuals! Beyond the students and faculty at Penn I feel so lucky to have in my life, I am time and again floored by the visionary leaders at all of our CASI partner organizations. And as I start thinking about partnerships for the upcoming summer I am launched out of my little university bubble and into a very different reality: India.
As part of my trip in December, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Venkatesh and Ms. Priya from Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. For the past four summers we have been sending students to Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai, a five to six hour drive southwest of Pondicherry. Hat’s off to the first class of CASI interns known as NanWuWare (Sam, Christina, and Sindhu) for paving the way for many future internship classes – Doreen, Diana, Gaby, Zach, Jane, Abhi, Olivia, Busra, and Vivek! Even our first Sobti Family Fellow, Vignesh Selvakumaran, spent nine months at Aravind in Madurai and Pondicherry working on several different projects! They know firsthand just how inspiring this place is.
In the past, our students have worked with LAICO, the management consulting arm at Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai. There, they have found a comprehensive support structure with a steady list of projects and a team of researchers ready to be lifelong mentors. This year we are expanding our Aravind partnership to include the Pondicherry hospital. What makes this hospital unique? I had to find out.
First off, the entire campus is smaller. And with a smaller team, there is a lot more that needs to get done! It turns out many visitors have come to observe the hospital and generated project ideas through their outsider perspective. Dr. Venkatesh, Chief Medical Officer, spoke to me about several projects scholars and students had taken on in the past.
Over time, it can become challenging to locate patient records in the database due to simple spelling mistakes – an extra “a” in someone’s first name, a missing number in the street address, changed cell phones etc. So how can you get the first input correct on site? At the Pondicherry hospital they implemented a two-screen method where a patient will be looking at the same screen facing outwards while the administrator behind the desk is typing in the information. In this way, the patient is more likely to catch any typos and errors as and when they occur.
Another scholar had come to Pondicherry to understand the carbon footprint of cataract surgery at Aravind versus hospitals in the U.S. and UK. See “Carbon footprint and cost–effectiveness of cataract surgery” (Venkatesh, Rengaraj; van Landingham, Suzanne W.) What does a hospital’s carbon footprint consist of? 1. Emissions from energy use by buildings; 2. Emissions due to travel of patients/staff; 3. Emissions associated with the production, consumption, and disposal of all goods – think cataract lenses, surgical supplies etc. Turns out Aravind had a pretty low carbon footprint in comparison to other places in the world, no surprise there.
Dr. Venkatesh pulled up a video made for the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. and spoke about how they might like a video that would help everyone at the hospital understand each other’s emotions, fears, and apprehensions. What a great project! Especially in India where patients do not have the same sense of empowerment or engagement in their own medical treatment. This could be a neat way to bring the nurses, doctors, staff, and patients together to understand each other a little better. We decided this might be a great CASI internship project for summer 2016. To kick start this, I decided that we should make a little trial video and called Sindhu Nandhakumar our 2015-16 Sobti Family Fellow and former Aravind intern to come and visit an eye camp the next day!
Here we are
And yes, that is a 360 camera on my head! The videos require a google cardboard viewer. We have a little viewer at CASI so come check it out if you have some time. Or, open it in Chrome and click on the video and scroll around in any direction to get the full 360 effect.
While I wanted Sindhu to put her Tamil skills to work and actually talk to people about the emotions of going through the eye camp, this really is a multi-part process. We should have made individual videos of each station. And then gone back through and done little interviews of the patients and nurses and then put it all together. Instead, you will see our trial run with Sindhu holding a mic and us talking to each other, laughing with the nurses, and trying to explain what is going on with the camera on my head. But check out the refraction – it’s for real.
Sindhu had never been to an eye camp during her Aravind internship! And well, there is nothing quite like going through that experience and seeing how community leaders mobilize to put the day together. A bus brings the doctors and nurses out to a town or village often 1-2 hours drive from the hospital. Sometimes 300 people show up, sometimes less. Because of the recent floods they were expecting fewer patients this time around. There are six stations where people get tested for glaucoma, diabetes, refraction, and glasses are made on the spot! For those who require cataract surgery – they are fed lunch and travel by bus back to the hospital where they spend the night and are operated on the next day before returning home. The ability to attract and push so many people through the camp is mind-boggling. And it comes at no cost to the patients.
I think Busra Gungor, C’17 and 2015 CASI-Aravind intern said it best when asked what was so unique about her summer experience: “I think working in India made me realize something that I don’t notice as much in the states: passion. The number of hours the doctors work and the number of patients they see within a day is truly remarkable. Seeing them in that environment and still be able to maintain a smile was incredible. Their passion for the organization was truly evident in everything they did.”
Applications are still open! Aravind is one of seven CASI internship partners we have for 2016.
More 360 videos and stories on CASI partners coming soon!
Associate Director CASI Student Programs and Outreach
To think that I am almost halfway through the Sobti Fellowship is a pretty startling thought. If that is the case, then by now, should I not have at least half a clue as to what I’m doing in India and what this experience means for me?
In terms of the actual work that I am doing, I do have “clues,” and I am getting more enthused and excited about my interviews and scholarly research. I see patterns developing in what I study, and as a researcher, that excites me. In terms of “processing” India and making sense of my time here, I am not so sure that I have much of a clue. Over the past month, I travelled within India: first a trip to nearby Pondicherry to see Aparna! Then to Bangalore to meet friends for New Years’, then to Bombay and finally to Delhi.
My time in Delhi was quite amazing. I’ve been to the city a few times, all in 2011. I was there during the hottest time of the summer. I remember sitting on a pavement stone at the Red Fort, drinking the last drops of water from a Bisleri bottle, and wishing myself away from the scorching heat.
This time around, I landed in the smoggy winter, grateful for my North Face jacket,but also feeling left out when I saw local aunties rocking the sweater over a Salwar-Kameez look. People exchanged quips about how Delhi was experiencing the lowest temperatures of the winter. It felt like a pleasant Fall day in Toronto or Philadelphia, and I was happy.
I stayed at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, and spent some amazing time with Aparna, Nathalie (currently a Fulbright ETA in Kolkata), Kristie (working for LEAP Skills in Delhi) and of course Alex Polyak (Fulbright Researcher in Delhi, and the casting director for a play that I directed at Penn).
In Delhi, I was interviewed by Aparna and a formidable looking film crew for a CASI video; we were invited to the homes of Patty Dhar, Penn Alumna, for an Alumni Mixer event. In defiance of a typical Penn stereotype, I never became a good networker, and so, it took a lot of my willpower to not sit at the couch eating guacamole and chips. When I did get off that couch and converse though, I met some very interesting people and heard some great stories. The alumni community in Delhi seems very vibrant and I keenly miss that in Chennai.
During my three days in the city, I also tasted copious amounts of tea in a wonderful tea shop that Alex took me to (with frequent visits to the loo to relieve my full bladder). I met up with some theatre friends of mine, and explored Delhi Haat. I got late night kebabs at a stall with Aparna, drank beer and ate goat cheese ice cream at alumnus Anant Ahuja’s family owned clothing store Bhane. On my last day, I spent some time at Khan Market, buying books about English theatre, and then explored the Afghan quarter with Alex, ending our outing with a wonderful meal at an Afghan restaurant.
Delhi was good for me. The conversations with the other former CASI interns helped me situate my emotions and feelings within my experience. Even though I grew up in the Indian subcontinent, I had a very different experience to how I live now. I grew up in a small city in Sri Lanka, in a middle class family that worried about money. And yet, I lived in a big house with a sprawling garden, a father who was ever obliging to take me to my various social events and extracurricular activities. I was immersed in a society by merely being born into it. As much as that society felt small and stifling at times, I never questioned that I was a part of it.
In Chennai, where I have lived for the past four months, life is just different. It is not comparable to my life in Toronto, Philly or Sri Lanka. And it is, to an extent, defined by the fact that I didn’t grow up in this city. I have extended family that I am close to, but the journey of feeling like you are a part of something is a very individual and personal journey. Moving from A to B is sometimes a mental challenge. I wanted to live like a local and take the bus, but whenever I have tried to do that, I’ve found myself exhausted. Chennai is hot; getting to the bus stop is difficult because there are few traffic lights with pedestrian crossings; buses during rush hour can be extremely crowded and suffocating. This makes me feel like an overprivileged human, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t change myself overnight and I need to be a bit more patient with myself.
Of all the major Indian metropoles that I have visited, I find Chennai to be the most insular. It has been easier for me to connect with like minded people in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi, either through the alumni community, or by reaching out to theatre companies and theatre practitioners. I know kindred spirits exist in Chennai, but I don’t know where they are, and what the public spaces for community building are. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge that life in Chennai has been difficult for me, probably because I thought it would be an admission of my inability to settle in faster, but it’s actually been a relieving realization.
I had an insightful conversation with Alex about energy. The amount of energy (mental and physical) that one dispenses on small, seemingly innocuous tasks in India, can be mind boggling. Receiving an Amazon package, getting an electrician to fix something in your home – these tasks take a large amount of time, disproportionate to their importance in our lives. Alex and I both agreed that probably the best reaction is to laugh about it, because it is funny in a rather absurd way when you wait five hours for an electrician to only discover that he hasn’t brought the correct tools with him.
It takes me approximately two minutes to get ready in the morning
- 00:00-00:30 – “what is clean and matching?” [flurry of options thrown on my bed]
- 00:30-00:40 – “can I get away without ironing?” [exchange top and bottom pieces until I can]
- 00:40-01:00 – “did I wear the same thing last week to a meeting with the same person?” [memory is a little slow in the morning]
- 01:00-01:30 – put on clothes
- 01:30-01:40 – mirror check to confirm matching status
- 01:40-01:50 – locate socks, shoes, accessories if any
- 01:50-02:00 – ready! [now to more important things like packing lunch]
Last week I visited one of CASI’s partner organizations Shahi Exports in Mysore, Karnataka and I can say with total confidence that my two minute routine of wearing ready-made clothing for 30+ years will never be the same.
18 lines, 2,000 employees, bolts of fabric stored for exactly 2.5 days of work flow, cad drawings, electric saws, stickers, stitching, collar turning, zipper attachments, flap ironing, color checking, washing and drying, folding, labeling, quality inspection (again and again and again), packing, shipping, and then to a shelf somewhere in the world!
This little run down did not do any sort of justice to the real process flow diagram but perhaps can give you a sense of how fast things are moving and how challenging it was for me to keep up. I had the pleasure of visiting the Mysore factory with Mr. Prasad, Senior Manager HR and Mr. Natesh, Manager Industrial Engineering who knows everything thing there is to know about running this factory. Mr. Natesh spent several years in Vietnam working in the garment industry before joining Shahi.
Most of the people that work at this factory are women – they come from nearby villages and arrive at the factory by 9 am and leave by 5:30 pm. Their children might attend the nursery (creche) on the factory grounds and if any employee ever falls ill at work, they can easily drop by the doctor who is just a few steps away.
Day in and day out most workers perform the same task – over and over and over and over. Whether it is operating a sewing machine, pressing a small piece of fabric, matching shades of colors on finished products, operating a larger machine, or running quality checks at different check points – the work is routine and steady and there is a lot of pressure to keep time. I learned that there are a few unique workers called “floaters” who are able to do several types of tasks and can fit in anywhere along the production line. Each line works together as a team to maximize their efficiency and they are rewarded as a group if they are able to improve their work.
Time is of essence, and Mr. Natesh has worked creatively to minimize the distance between employees to improve their team work.
I saw the Kanban system in action! Check out these cards here.
My few hours spent at the factory with eyes wide open could have observed 16 different styles under process in that single day (likely only one color and size was moving thorough the factory line). It takes around 41 standard allowed minutes (SAM) from fabric cutting to final piece for a garment.
Hundreds if not thousands of people handle the clothing we wear without us even knowing it. Have you ever thought about the people who put each and every stitch into what we wear everyday? What would they be doing if they were not sitting at a machine? What are their worries in life? How do they consider their jobs, their futures, their relationships with their families and colleagues? What do they want for their children? What could make their lives easier, better, happier? Are these even questions that people might ask themselves? Turns out, this is what CASI internships are all about.
Two days later I visited the Shahi Exports factory in Bangalore and was greeted with a warm celebratory welcome! I already knew that Amy, Chan, Kendra, and Valentine were hard-working CASI interns from the 2016 class with passion for listening, asking questions, and creating long-lasting relationships and friendships. It is certainly a gift to follow them a few months later and see how well they are remembered and loved!
This morning I am thinking differently about my jeans as I pull them on – the color that was oh so carefully selected before it got worn out, the designer who took a pattern and made it simpler for a factory line, the stitching that is tried and tested before advancing to repeat mode by the thousands, the zippers that were sourced specifically and shipped in bulk, the pockets, the flaps, the buttons, the logo, the ironing, the packing, the label.
Perhaps I’ll move a little more slowly as I pick through the options in my closet knowing that it took so many people to put it together.
More soon from my visit to unit number 12.
Associate Director, CASI Student Programs and Outreach
After three movies, some concentrated reading, and a few hours of stolen sleep – I’m confident I understand what it feels like to be a sleep deprived Penn undergrad again! While I’m far too old to pull all nighters I somehow always manage to make this one work. India here I come!
From 35,000 feet above the ground, I’ve been chasing sunrises and starlight for 20+ hours. Meals appear to arrive every 15 minutes and the Dubai airport is a complete blur with sparkling duty free and a mere 30 minutes of free internet. Physically and mentally I am very much caught between destinations and my mind wanders between the cold of the east coast and the Christmas presents I didn’t have time to buy, to the promise of tropical air and hot dosa I can’t wait to sink my teeth into.
Upon landing and taking my first step from airplane to sky walk my internal fog clears and the physical one begins. The rush of humidity seeps through the cracks in the walkway and I breathe in the strong smoky smell of Mumbai winter. Here at last.
Welcomed by a steady stream of honking horns, flashing lights in all shapes and sizes, and the stop and go stutter of highway traffic – I am very much at home.
I will be traveling in India for the next few weeks visiting CASI partners, meeting with former CASI students, and shooting a little video. I’m going to jump on the CASI Student Programs blog bullock cart and subject myself to the same requirements as our students (yikes, internet can be hard to come by while traveling even with multiple connected devices)! I’m also hoping that my posts will inspire some CASI alumni to write in this winter holiday season (ahem, we are all waiting!).
Here I go!
Associate Director, CASI Student Programs and Outreach
These past two months have been great and strange and weird and comforting. Chennai’s heat was rough. It was difficult for me to find rhythm and routine in the theatre world because I didn’t know a whole deal of people. But with time came contacts, and with those contacts came more contacts and suddenly I was interviewing a lot of people.
People in Chennai have a lot to say about the local theatre. Some people are proud of how far it has quite amazingly kept up with the times, venturing into the digital platform. Others are relieved at how it is able to have a space for itself in a city where the primary emphasis is on bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Yet others are dismayed at how commercial theatre has become, saddened by how most theatre companies spend more time marketing their shows than actually rehearsing for them.
I have been able to experience both sides of the phenomenon. Theatre Nisha is the theatre company that is advising my research in Chennai. Its founder, Mr. Balakrishnan is a graduate of the National School of Drama, India’s most renowned acting school. He emphasizes quality – of his work, the writing, the acting. I also worked with another group on a short children’s play for Diwali. Of all places, it was held in a mall. People showed up more than an hour late for rehearsals; at times it was unclear who was running the rehearsal room, and the final product borrowed a lot from popular Tamil movie references and gestures from famous actors like Rajnikanth.
I paused my research in Chennai to head to West Bengal to participate in a theatre workshop. I flew in to Calcutta, and attended a theatre event that an acquaintance of mine had invited me to. The event opened with a talk about proscenium style theatres vs. alternative spaces. The actress who was leading the discussion threw various questions at the audience, and the audience replied with equal amounts of enthusiasm. I sat in the crowded room in awe. Discussions with people from Calcutta showed that Calcutta places a lot of emphasis and importance on theatre.
After a couple of days in Calcutta, I went to Tepantar Theatre Village where I was participating in an International Residency run by Anna Helena McLean of Moon Fool, a London based theatre company. Anna was a principal member of Poland based theatre company Gardzienice for seven years. Gardzienice is a company that models its work on the teachings of Grotowski. The workshop was physically exhausting, with acrobatic style movements (which I was so afraid of) and a lot of singing (which I am very self-conscious about). The seven day workshop culminated in a production of Romeo and Juliet where we moved around the village, staging different scenes in different locations, taking the audience with us. The workshop was absolutely phenomenal and helped me feel absolutely validated in my decision to be in India. A big reason for this was the other participants in the workshop, from various parts of India. Most of them are theatre practitioners who gave me an understanding of how theatre is in their city.
When I came back to Chennai, I was greeted by a city that had come to a complete standstill because of the monsoon rains. Schools have been shut for over a week, people have had to temporarily relocate to relatives’ homes because water has seeped into their houses. Commutes that take half an hour now take about three hours. Ola, a company like Uber, had an option where users could choose to call a boat, rowed by a professional rower to get people from A to B.
When I landed at the Chennai airport, I was told that there would be no taxis till morning (it was 9 pm). One of the few cafes in the arrival lounge had run out of all food except instant cup noodles, which people were trying frenetically to purchase. I resigned myself to a night at the airport when two of my brave cousins decided to come and pick me up. It took them three hours to get to the airport and two for us to return home.
I’m reintroducing myself since it’s been over a year since I last posted to the CASI blog. My name is Kristi Littleton and I’m a recent Penn grad from the class of 2015. I interned with Leap Skills Academy in the summer of 2014 and now I am currently working full time for the same start-up.
For those who may not know Leap’s story, it is a skill-development company founded in 2013 with the mission to help youth from non-tier 1 towns to achieve their career aspirations. It mainly does this by providing skills training to college students and young people who have just entered the workforce. The training generally consists of soft-skill training, basic IT skills, business communication (in English), and recruitment preparation. These skills sound like pretty basic common-knowledge things that we might know intuitively, but surprisingly they are not as ubiquitous as you might think. Imagine that you hired a fresh college graduate in the IT industry and asked them to help out a customer with a problem that they’re having, but your fresh college graduate had no idea how to talk to the customer and so the customer got frustrated and left. Or imagine that you are a recruiter looking for fresh graduates to work in the retail industry, but all of the resumes that you are looking at are formatted weirdly and have serious grammar mistakes. You realize that none of the candidates would have the language skills required for the job. Language isn’t the only problem either. It may be a lack of confidence that makes it difficult for your new employees to give their opinions during a team meeting and then you end up missing out on important feedback from your teammates. These are a few examples of the challenging situations that actually do happen. A lot. And it’s impacting employers because they cannot find qualified individuals to work for them. At the same time, it impacts students who graduate from college and expect to be able to find a job, but instead are turned down time after time. This is the skills gap that we are trying to overcome slowly but surely.
We are currently working in two small cities, Yamuna Nagar and Ambala, in the state of Haryana (located to the North of Delhi). Skill development is a very hot topic in Indian politics today, so if you read Indian news you are likely to hear a lot about it. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has included skill development prominently in his plans to promote India’s economic development. Under the current 12th five-year plan, the government hopes to have 50 million skilled workers by 2017. This seems like a daunting task, which is why the government has started several initiatives to encourage the private sphere to tackle this problem. Organizations like Leap have started to pop up across India as a result of these initiatives. Like the private education system in the U.S., many of these organizations have low-quality programs that are not creating the impact that they promise. There are also some organizations that are delivering on their promises and bringing real change. The distinction between the two is difficult to manage and the poor-quality companies tend to give a bad name to the entire lot. So much so, that I recall hearing someone say that education start-ups in India are a joke. And what a sad joke to hear considering the many young dreams and aspirations involved.
Well, quality is not something you can necessarily tell by just looking at a website or a brochure. The best way to determine whether something is real is to see it with your own eyes. And so I walked into a Leap classroom last summer, not really sure what to expect, but trusting the incredible people from CASI that helped me to get there. I was relieved to see that the trainers were invested in the students and would go out of class time and out of billing hours to help them achieve their goals. They showed an above and beyond dedication to the craft of education and to the dreams of their students. I was so sold by the integrity of the organization that I came back a year later to help further Leap’s mission.
I work as the “Manager of Content and Learning” which discarding the fancy title, basically means that I help build and review Leap’s lesson plans as well as track the quality of Leap’s programs. It’s a daunting task for a twenty-two year old fresh out of college with only a bit of experience playing recess games and teaching summer school with elementary-aged children. But perhaps it is this enormous challenge that makes working for Leap such an exciting adventure for me. I can’t think of another place where I would have as much freedom to explore new ideas in education and to be involved in the educational process on so many different levels. Moreover, I get to be in India, which is exciting enough by itself!
I look forward to sharing some more of my experiences during my post-grad experience in India with the wonderful CASI family!
All the best for now,Kristi