A Reclaiming of Roots

Imagine that you are eight years old. It is your first day of third grade at your elementary school, and you are hopeful. As you step off the elevated steps of the sunshine-colored school bus, the stench of gasoline weaves into the crispness of the September air. The wind skirts to and fro, squeezing your shoulders tightly. Its soft grip guides you towards the front steps of the school, as if to say, maybe this will be the year.

Inside the school, eyes dart back and forth; friends from years past locate one another and join hands as they merrily skip into their respective classrooms. Your eyes are frantically racing too, anxiously oscillating in the hopes of finding someone, anyone, who looks like you. There must be another South Asian-American in this Caucasian sea, someone who feels just as overpowered by the ethnic homogeneity as you. If not last year, then definitely this year, right?

As expected, however, there is no one of such character. For yet another year, you will learn alongside peers whose understanding of South Asia is limited to their experience watching Aladdin. While many of your classmates have parents who identify as immigrants, their lineages predominantly hail from countries such as Ireland, England, Italy, France and Germany. Their lives are centered on the Bible and the latest Star Wars film, yours on the Bhagavad Gita and the timeless Bollywood classic that is Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. The social studies you learn—and will continue to learn throughout high school—revolve around their Westernized narratives and seldom mention the name Gandhi. When you muster up the courage to bring in a pitcher of mango lassi for an international food event, some of your peers wrinkle their noses.

Simply put, the media of your classmates and learning environment is not your media, and their culture is not your culture.

The story described above is my story. Growing up in suburban Connecticut, I found it incredibly difficult to reconcile my Indian identity with my American one. While I was incredibly fortunate to be part of an Indian family friend circle on the weekends, I felt an overwhelming need to hide my heritage during the hours of the school day. I stubbornly refused to learn Hindi—a decision that I immensely regret today—and never discussed my religious or cultural traditions with my classmates. I was so determined to claim the American part of my identity and “fit in” that I inadvertently denied my connection to the land that my parents, grandparents and other family members call home.

Flash forward twelve years later to my junior year at the University of Michigan. I had heard about the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program from Jacob Anderson and Grace Beckham, two amazing undergraduates who were respectively selected as SISA Fellows in 2015 and 2016. From the time I scheduled my first meeting with the program’s advisors to the time I received my acceptance, things felt surreal. How was I, a highly Westernized South Asian-American, supposed to independently travel across the world and ethically engage in my proposed project’s issues of HIV/AIDS and public health? Even as I write this post, less than two weeks before I depart for Bangalore, India, things feel surreal.

During my time in Bangalore, I will be interning with Swasti. Created in 2002, Swasti is a health resource center dedicated to improving public health outcomes for marginalized communities across the subcontinent. Since its establishment, Swasti has implemented several projects in areas such as gender based violence, water sanitation and hygiene and sexual and reproductive health. In 2014, Swasti was chosen to lead Phase III of the Avahan India AIDS Initiative. Launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003, this program is devoted to providing HIV prevention resources for female sex workers, transgender individuals and LGBTQ+ men across six states of southern India, where the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections is particularly high.

In the last decade, Phases I and II of the Avahan project have successfully prevented as many as six hundred thousand HIV infections in southern India. Now, through the employment of ninety-five community modules, Phase III seeks to provide education and infrastructure to more than two hundred thousand vulnerable people. As such, Swasti hopes to empower communities as a whole to be active in the long-term eradication of HIV.

As an aspiring pharmacist and public health professional, I believe my internship with the Avahan Initiative will provide me the unique opportunity to engage with the issue of sexual health and learn from individuals who work tirelessly to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in southern India. And as an aspiring global citizen, I hope that my internship will heighten my understanding of ethical community engagement, global citizenship and service learning.

To my third grade self—I only wish I could go back in time and let you know how special your roots are. Perhaps this endeavor will also be an opportunity to pick up that I so ignorantly left behind.

~ N.S.

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About Neel Swamy

Neel is a rising senior studying Neuroscience with a minor in Gender & Health. After graduation, Neel hopes to attend pharmacy school and one day work with patients in a clinical psychiatric setting. Neel will be spending five weeks working with Swasti, a health resource center in Bangalore that focuses on structurally and systematically addressing the health needs of marginalized populations. Neel will be specifically working with the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, a large HIV prevention program initiated in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Swasti is currently leading the third phase of the program, which specifically focuses on providing communities sustainable resources to two vulnerable populations: women from the sex working industry and men who identify as transgender. Neel's research project will focus on highlighting the ways in which the initiative that have proven to be successful and how Swasti has successfully empowered individuals from marginalized backgrounds through community engagement.

2 thoughts on “A Reclaiming of Roots

  1. Neel, thank you for sharing! I feel both privileged and excited to be following you on your journey 🙂 It sounds like Swasti is doing wonderful things in the community– I look forward to learn more from you!

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