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Initiating connections

Students travel to India to provide aid to many villages with fellowship funds

By Jessie Miller
On February 5, 2012

On the southern coast of India, in the state of Kerala, is a town called Kasaragod. There David Wilkerson '12 discovered a rich and vibrant Hindu culture on an excursion during his trip to the city of Banagalore this past summer. He experienced visiting with a family of strangers amid the sound of pots and pans banging together and the smells of delicious food being served for Durga Puja, a festival in honor of the goddess of destruction.

Wilkerson, along with Jessica Christian '13 and Melissa Donze '12, are three members of the new Brandeis-India Initiative Fellowship, a program designed to strengthen Brandeis' ties to partner institutions in India through cultural and academic interaction, including students studying abroad and University President Frederick Lawrence's current visit there.

All three students were based in the inland city of Bangalore. Christian and Donze worked for eight weeks with the non-governmental organization Milana, a network that helps unite people living with HIV to help them share and deal with the problems they are facing. The organization also promotes AIDS education and awareness.

Donze, who went on the trip as a Social Justice World of Work Fellow, a grant Brandeis awards to support unpaid summer internships, described Milana as a "family support network for people living with HIV and AIDS. They do awareness work ... and a lot of advocacy on behalf of certain organizations."

"[Milana] primarily work[s] with women and children. The women that I was working with everyday were all HIV-positive, and they were employed by Milana as outreach workers, ... but at the same time, the organization was providing them with a source of income and they were able to go out and educate other people on their own experiences," explained Donze.

Another aspect of Milana, Christian adds, is Chiguru, which means "sapling" in the native language, Kannada. The group helps facilitate monthly meetings with 40 to 60 kids who get together and talk about the issues they are dealing with, such as discrimination. "A lot of the kids see Milana as the tree and the kids are the saplings," said Christian, because the organization has given them the opportunity to grow and prosper despite the adversity they face.

Wilkerson spent his time in southwest Bangalore working for an organization called Hindu Seva Pratishthana, specifically the Yuva for Sewa, "a program to help mainly grassroots and local volunteers in the Bangalore area," said Wilkerson.

"I worked for their health team, so my work was primarily involved in doing medical camps in government schools and sort of acting as a liaison between corporate sponsors [and the organization]," explained Wilkerson in an interview with the Justice. On a daily basis, he did "a lot of number crunching … follow-ups and physicals for children," he says.

Christian was first inspired to study in India when the president of Milana spoke in her Women's and Gender Studies class during her first year at Brandeis. She also thinks that "AIDS is a very interesting thing to study over there, especially because of the lack of sexual education."

Though born in America, Christian's parents are from India, and her grandfather currently lives there. "[My experiences in India] helped me connect to my Indian roots as well, and I think that's what made it so important—because these people look like me and I see them suffering and I take a great interest in helping them," she explained.

While in Bangalore, Donze and Christian worked together coordinating meetings, creating the NGO's website and completing other projects.

Specifically, Christian and Donze organized a program for the children "where we used art as a medium for them to express themselves and ... their futures, what their hopes and goals were, but also the kind of impact HIV has had on their lives. It was really awesome and telling," said Donze.

Both were very proud of what they accomplished for the children. For Christian, it was important because the kids have "been through so much and dealt with things that adults in America don't have to deal with, but they're so resilient and they can still be happy and smile and enjoy life," she said.

One memorable part of Christian's experience was creating a questionnaire to give to the children. "Basically, we're assessing their physical and educational needs and whether or not they were receiving enough sexual education, since sexual education is banned in India in schools. So it was important that we talked about those things so that we don't perpetuate HIV in their lives."

Christian also visited nearby villages in conjunction with the Right to Food campaign set up by multiple international NGOs that "take up their own initiative to bring grains and other nutritional supplements to certain villages," she said.

Looking back, Christian has learned to appreciate the little things we take for granted in America, such as a washing machine. In addition, she's learned the importance of daily interactions with people. "I would be meeting new people everyday when I was in India, and I would cherish those memories because I knew I wasn't going to see those people again," she said.

Christian also emphasizes her growth as a leader and a newfound appreciation for service learning, which she is bringing back to Brandeis in her work with Girl Effect, an organization working to empower women in developing countries and again working with Milana to hopefully send more students to work in India like she did. Girl Effect is launching a new program during February called "Love in a Box" in which students can write letters to the people involved in Milana that will be sent along with other supplies.

Wilkerson, a South Asian Studies minor, learned on his trip "that not everywhere in the world has the same type of work ethic and expectations and environment that we tend to have in the United States." Long commutes are typical, leading to common tardiness. This taught Wilkerson "to be flexible and to think on [his] feet and to do what you can while you can and to not get frustrated by things not going as you expect," he said.

Since being back in the U.S., Wilkerson has typed his journal from the trip, adding in photographs and other notes, like a homeopathic remedy for a cough he learned from his host mother, and published it for the India Fellows Project.

Donze is using her experiences in her role as president of the Students Global Aids Campaign, a U.S.-based network of student and youth organizations committed to the global fight against AIDS, according to its website. She has also published stories and photographs in Wander, the study abroad magazine on campus, and the Social Justice WOW booklet.

During her stay in India, Donze was searching for what social justice truly means. She especially values her conversations with HIV-positive women and their ability to connect with each other through common experiences.

"I had come in with this very American mentality of the idea that we have to save the world, that we have to make big changes to really have an effect on people, but what I came to realize is that it wasn't the big things that mattered; it was the little things," she said. 

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