Five years ago, I hopped a plane to Chennai, India with BCA Study Abroad. Besides a weekend trip to Canada, it was my first time really traveling. Not just traveling, but living in a place completely different from the Westernized world I was accustomed to.
I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. And when I got off the plane, it all hit me at once. Just a few steps outside of the airport, and every part of my body started sticking to itself in the extreme heat. Mobs of people were everywhere, flowing in and out of the congested airport traffic completely un-phased, in a state of organized chaos. Smells of burning trash mixed with spices and fresh flowers flooded my nostrils. All my senses were activated taking in the newness and rich landscape of my soon to be Indian home.
Fast forward to a few months later. I was deep into classes, adjusting to Indian culture, and making local friends. As part of my study abroad experience, I worked with a small organization, outside of the city, named the Women in Need Foundation (WIN).
Several times a week, I would travel to a nearby village to work with WIN leading projects with an Indian social work student who acted as my counterpart. Together, we met with local leaders and performed interviews of women and children to determine areas of need.
Over the course of four months, we conducted programs on health and sanitation, taught English classes to school children, led programs on gender equality and domestic violence, and helped in any other way we could. My days at WIN ebbed and flowed between exciting, frustrating, and empowering.
Being in India and doing my internship gave me a taste for development work. It was a valuable learning experience that I could not have gotten without studying abroad.
However, I felt as though it wasn’t enough time to truly make a real impact in the community I was working in. It seemed that just as my time in India was ending, the women in the community were really beginning to trust me. They were being more open and candid about problems that they were hesitant to share before. It seemed unfair that the time was so short. How could I leave India just as work with WIN was taking off?
After returning to the USA after study abroad, I was a different person. My eyes were widened to the realities of the world and I felt like there was so much more to be done. India taught me a lot about myself, the world, and real challenges that people face every day that we, as Americans, have the luxury not to.
These thoughts, ideas, and curiosities followed me through the rest of my college experience and into my career afterwards. I realized to make an honest impact, to make a sustainable change, that you must truly be embedded within a community.
Real change takes time and a deep understanding of the culture you are working with, along with trust and collaboration with the people you are trying to help. Being in India helped me understand these facts and led me to join the United States Peace Corps.
So here I am now, 5 years after my study abroad experience, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. Peace Corps is a natural next step after the inspiration and lessons I learned through BCA India.
The first 3 months in Ghana were spent doing an intensive Peace Corps training. This included living with a host family, studying the local language of my community, learning about Ghanaian culture, and implementing small local projects to practice the work we will do throughout our service. For the remaining 2 years of my service, I will be in a rural village, living as the locals do. I will complete health related projects on topics such as water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and nutrition. And, most importantly, I will be able to incorporate all I’ve learned from the people here through being embedded and present to guide my work within the community.
I am currently in the process of integrating into my community in the Volta Region of Ghana and have been here 2 month. A typical day involves learning how to cook local foods, watching men play cards, working in my garden, playing with children, shucking corn, doing my laundry by hand, attending meetings, continuing my language learning, bargaining at the local market, and dancing as much as possible with whoever I can. For now, I am getting to know my community, and they are getting to know me, too. Soon I will be able to start projects through the relationships I am forming during this important integration period.
However, I do know this: If you have the opportunity, without a doubt, you should study abroad. You will learn so much and grow into a more well-rounded citizen of the world.
Maybe you won’t be joining the Peace Corps (although I highly recommend it!), but I am willing to bet your passions will strengthen, your eyes and heart will open, and you will begin to forge your own unique and all-inspiring path.
About the author – Rebecca Anderson, Fall 2012 BCA Chennai, India Student