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.

Under One Sky

I departed Bangalore on a cool, misty morning in late June. It was approximately seven o’clock when I, along with my parents and sister—who arrived in India during the last week of my internship—stepped into an ebony colored taxi, our physically exhausted bodies brimming with the catharsis that newly formed memories induce. As we careened down a slumbering highway, which was empty expect for the occasional rickshaw or plastic bag, the sun peeked its nose over our shoulders and flashed a bittersweet smile, which illuminated the inviting wrinkles running through its ancient rays. It rose into the amber-stained sky like a lotus in a mucky pond, as if to reassure me, the journey is hardly over. On the way back to the United States, my family and I spent a few days in London. While I am incredibly grateful to have been able to explore one of the world’s most culturally rich cities—with my family, nonetheless—it felt incredibly strange to walk through the pages of a dominating Westernized narrative. The cobblestones sprawling through the English streets felt incredibly foreign after spending several weeks walking through the sandy sidewalks of Bangalore. The people in London, in true Western fashion, lacked the warm facial expressions that the citizens of Bangalore adorn so easily. It was also perplexing to suddenly be the only person in a mile radius wearing sandals instead of close-toed shoes. And while London should have (in theory) made it incredibly easy to adjust back to the United States, I nonetheless find myself feeling dazed. Dazed as I flashed my American passport at John F. Kennedy International Airport and officially entered the country of my birth, as I fought the automatic tendency to compare India to the United States. Dazed as I stepped into the arms of a humid, New York evening, which gripped me close despite not being able to truly understand how I've changed. Dazed as I think back to one year ago, when the idea of participating in the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program was preposterous. One year ago, when I first discussed the fellowship program with my parents, who like me were unsure about what this journey would bring. Even as I went about the application process, the thought of interning in India the summer after my junior year was nothing more than a premature vision. I simply did not think I "had what it takes" to embark on this journey. You often hear people say, “It’s funny how much can change in a year.” I’m not quite sure I would use the word “funny.” Perhaps “magical” is more appropriate. As I reflect on my experience this summer, the one sentence that comes to mind is this: the world feels much bigger. Now, when I step outside and stare at the diamond-dressed sky hovering above Connecticut, I think about the people I met (and reunited with) in India. I think about the impact that they had on me and the impact they will continue to have on the world around them. I think about how when they gaze at their sky each evening, we are fixating on the same entity of infinity. For you see, the stars and their ascendants know nothing of man-made cultural barriers. In their eyes, we are nothing more (and nothing less) than multiple hearts beating and pumping in synchrony. We are all objects, uniquely crafted pieces of woodwork, blood vessels and skin, existing independently and concurrently under one sky. Given these thoughts, the concept of departure is a strange one. While it is true that my physical body has transcended to a different landscape—one in which the clouds speak to me not in Kannada, but in a piercingly familiar American English—-part of my heart will always remain in the experiences I had in India. As I adjust back to the world I knew before India and turn towards the journey ahead, I am trying to articulate, to myself and others, how this experience has impacted me. I suppose this is one of those situations where even the English language finds itself speechless. It is my hope that the blogs written on this site—by myself as well as the other 2017 SISA Fellows—will encourage others to take the same leap that led me on this adventure. It is my hope that someone, even one person, will find trust in our experiences this year and make the decision to dive into a new culture. This decision is not one to be taken lightly, but it is one that rewards those who are open minded and curious. The personal and professional journey I had in India has dynamically transformed my world views and has given me an education that no university classroom can. I would not be the person I am without the opportunities bestowed by the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program and the amazing staff at Swasti, who embraced me despite the short duration of my internship. Thank you to Janelle, Dan and the anonymous donor for turning my premature dream into a tangible vision that has touched my life in ways that words cannot express. Thank you to Grace Beckham and Jacob Anderson, former SISA Fellows who answered all my questions throughout the application process, challenged my misguided hesitations and inspired me to take this step forward. And, perhaps most importantly, thank you to my parents, who since emigrating from India twenty-four years ago, have sacrificed so much to give me the opportunities I have.

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“Perfect Places” and Mental Spaces

During my last week in Bangalore, a soft chill ran through the city, burrowing into my throat like a mischievous snake in a garden patch. Perhaps the change in weather—a sharp contrast to the temperate warmth that generally paces through the Garden City’s streets—was a symbol of the journey to come, one in which I must attempt to vaporize back into the world I knew before my fellowship experience. Or perhaps it was nature’s way of challenging me to absorb as much as I could before I left. Then again, I might just be exaggerating for the sake of poetic prose. Who knows? As the day of my departure approached, I was faced with a natural question from friends and family: how do I feel about “The Return” (as if coming back to the United States is the same thing as attending a midnight showing of a cheesy horror film)? Have I taken advantage of my time in India to the fullest extent possible? Am I excited to come back? Given that I am someone whose mind is always running, it was rather unsettling to not have any tangible answers to these questions. I don’t know, I would mutter back. Even so, there is one question that I can answer with great certainty: has your experience changed you? Indeed, it has. In addition to learning a great deal from my time at Swasti, I have also acquired much introspection from spending time with myself. Being in Bangalore, even for the short span of six weeks, has provided me a “mental space” that is difficult to find amidst the chaotic bustle of campus life. In Bangalore, I have been able to read deeply, explore freely and engage in life changing conversations with individuals who are both older than me and wield unique sets of life experiences. I have laughed openly with family and friends, sometimes to the point of crying. I have reflected, not only on where I want my education to go, but also on how I want to apply it towards the greater goal of living in an equitable world. I have been provided essential opportunities to consider my relationships and the ways in which I am—or am not—reconciling them with my core values. I had the time to divulge into my own mind, which as strange as it sounds has been a necessary avenue for self-care during my time abroad. In this sense, Bangalore has been more than I could have ever imagined; maybe this is what Lorde means when she sings about “Perfect Places” on her recently released album.
A photo taken in Mavinakere, a small village in the Indian state of Karnataka.

A photo taken in Mavinakere, a small village in the Indian state of Karnataka. 

I have always been someone who thrives in the comfort of others, a self-proclaimed extrovert who easily derived happiness from others but struggled to do so in solitude. There have been countless instances in which, upon finding all my close friends to be busy or unavailable, I would feel helpless and downtrodden. While my experiences in India have not completely done away with my extroverted nature (I certainly wouldn’t want it to!) I have begun to find joy in small moments of loneliness and trust in myself. I no longer feel the need to do anything and everything to avoid spending time alone…that’s pretty neat, don’t you think? The question now becomes this: how (if at all) can this changed version of me fit neatly into what I have known, both in my home environment and at school? Is it possible for me to reconcile my desire to maximize my relationships during my last year of my undergraduate career with my drive to be intellectually and personally independent? How can I maintain a core goal of living humbly as I operate within the self-centered utopia that is a college town? ……………………………………………………………………………………………… It is getting late, and I shall end this blog post—the first part of my post-fellowship reflection—soon. But I shall say this: we often speak of experiences that “shake us to our bones,” of memories so vivid that they occupy the deepest chamber of our bodies. But what do we make of an experience that does not diffuse to our bones, but rather to the rich bloodstream lying beneath our dermis? What do we make of an episode that does not sit idly in calcium deposits, but prances freely throughout our entire system, acting as a constant reminder of the passion we felt? I suppose the answer to the questions I have posed in these blog posts—as well as those that have been posed to me by those I have met—will be incredibly difficult to find. But then again, isn’t that part of the fun?

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A Lesson in Time

As a college student, my perception of time is, for most of the year, measured in the following parameters: days left to study for an exam, minutes between classes, seconds more that I can sleep, and countless moments of laughter and euphoria with friends. We tend to speak of time as a tangible entity, something that we can easily grab by the shoulders and steer in the direction of our dreams. Yet, time is also a sorcerer of sorts, a mystical being who, with a gentle twist of its fingers, can lift the present from under our feet and replace it with a dramatically different present. When I was planning my trip to India back in March, I was governed by a distorted sense of time. It was my understanding that most students who participate in the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program work in India for a time span of four to six weeks. Six weeks, back then, seemed like a lifetime. I made the decision to spend approximately this amount of time working with Swasti in Bangalore. It seemed sufficient, at the time. Since stepping through the glass doors that separate the Bengaluru International Airport from the Garden City, I have gradually come to see how inelastic the time span of six weeks is. As the time for me to leave India slithers towards me with the tantalizing stare of a golden-eared cobra, I find myself feeling incomplete. The lessons I am learning during my internship with Swasti are too numerous, illustrious and stimulating to put a neat bow on it now. And the idea of leaving a Bangalore, a city that in both its loudest and most silent states has given me so much, is highly unnerving. If I leave so soon, am I making the most out of my experience? Am I doing justice, not only to the organization I work for, but also to myself? It was these questions that flowed through my veins the evening I frantically called home and proclaimed my unyielding desire to extend my internship. My parents, though no strangers to the charm wielded by Bangalore, were certainly surprised to hear that I had fallen in love with the same place that, one month prior, I was terrified to travel to. Still, they actively listened to my idea and responded simply. Extending my internship, they explained, would not only be expensive, but would also compromise family obligations taking place later in the summer. We understand, they explained. But there is just not enough time. Not enough time. I ended the call by telling them that I understood, but even in the hours to follow, I was not so confident. There is a rich body of advocacy taking place at Swasti, and an undying culture of community in Bangalore that still has to be explored. As I lay in bed that night, my eyes fixated on the window from which the deep sighs of monsoon rainfall exhaled, I realized that my thought process had a fundamental flaw: I was driven not solely by a desire to continue my work with Swasti, but also by a motivation to justify the validity of my experience to those back home. I believe this mindset is natural of any person who is receiving an education—formal or informal—in a new space. The temptation to take incredible pictures, post them to social media and invite those we love into our experience is incredibly hard to resist. We want others to appreciate our bravery in stepping into a new realm of the world, to understand how rich our experience is. But I’ve realized—and this may be profoundly selfish of me—that this experience is mine, and mine alone. No matter how many pictures I take (very few thus far), nobody will be able to understand how eye opening this experience has actually been. The mechanics of time have given rise to a particular present, but I control how I use this journey to guide my future. Bangalore sunset The next day, I spoke to my supervisor at Swasti about two exciting possibilities: the first being that I continue my work with Swasti for a few more weeks after returning to the United States, and the second being that I come back to the organization next summer to complete a two month internship. While the latter scenario is far less concrete, I was humbled to see the eagerness on my supervisor’s face. Her affirmation of my thoughts has proven one fundamental truth: time can move many things, but it is entirely helpless against the current of a beating heart.

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When the Subaltern Cannot Speak

In my previous blog posts, I’ve written about my initial impressions in India. I’ve discussed my fascination with the concept of borders—physical as well as psychological ones—and the ways in which our minds often construct faulty comparisons as a means of overcoming the discomfort of difference. Since my previous posts, I have started my work with Swasti, a public health resource centre in my host city of Bangalore, and learned even more; this time, not about erratic driving habits, but about public service, passion and an indisputable vision. Established in 2002, Swasti is driven by a dream of achieving public health outcomes for those who are socially excluded and poor. Through the implementation of different community engagement modules and field research programs, and by adopting an interdisciplinary approach that addresses three core components of positive community wellness—behaviours, systems and social determinants—Swasti seeks to empower groups that are often excluded by the government and policy sectors in India, namely female sex workers and sexual minorities. Swasti’s three-pronged approach was informed by extensive research, which demonstrated that there is a fundamental gap between the theoretical framework of policies designed to serve these communities and the realities faced by members of these communities (I will discuss this further in a little bit). At Swasti, I am assisting staff members in the creation of a business proposal for the Generation Youth (GenY) Initiative, a program that, unlike those catered towards adults, is specifically designed to serve transgender and gender nonconforming youth. It is based on a truth that has been demonstrated time and time again by educators, psychologists, clinical social workers and health care professionals all over the world—that is, that childhood and adolescence mark a critical period during which an individual acquires values, beliefs and skills that shape the rest of their lives. In recognizing that the social marginalization of transgender people begins early in one’s life and contributes to high rates of poverty and illnesses such as HIV/AIDS later in life, the GenY Initiative hopes to introduce young people to various support systems that, when accessed, will decrease the likelihood of acquiring these negative health outcomes. The transgender community is among the most vulnerable in India, and throughout history has endured intense discrimination, prejudice and violence, not only from healthcare professionals and law enforcement, but from family and community members as well. Transgender youth, in particular, face immense challenges. In a disturbingly high proportion of cases, families and communities disown these children and refuse to provide social, emotional and financial support. Educational institutions and employers routinely discriminate against—and in some instances, even deny admission to—young people who are transgender and gender non-conforming. These prejudices accumulate and leave these youth with little option but to flee from home into a world of uncertainty, where social resources are incredibly difficult to access. While it is true that social protection programs do exist, an overwhelming proportion of these services are inaccessible to an overwhelming proportion of the transgender community. Many social service programs require that individuals obtain legal documents such as a proof of residence and voter’s identification card—documents that are incredibly difficult to acquire if the person is estranged from their home. Laws that require transgender people to verify their gender identity before a government-sponsored medical committee only exacerbate the difficulties. To understand how problematic this mandate is, imagine having to consult with a psychiatrist and government official in order to have your preferred gender identity included on your driver’s license. Policies are only effective when they consciously consider the unique needs of those they are supposed to theoretically assist. In addition, many of the policies currently in place fail to consider that the bodily autonomy of transgender individuals in India often lies with somebody else, such as a partner, family member or community leader. The inability to make independent choices about one’s reproductive health presents a particular nuance that has to be considered by any intervention service. For instance, how can policy makers expect members from this community to routinely use government-sponsored contraceptives when doing so leads to violence or neglect from a romantic partner? These disparities in policy are numerous, but can all be attributed to one fundamental error: the lack of inclusion of marginalized communities in the sociopolitical landscape. When we ignore this error, we contribute to the preposterous belief that marginalized populations are simply not standing up for themselves, or are doing so in a socially divisive manner. But the problem, as I have seen through my work at Swasti, lies not in the refusal of the oppressed to voice their concerns, but in the reluctance of those in privilege to listen, empathize and act. This concept has without a doubt been the source of much debate throughout history and time, and is elaborated further by Gayatri Spivak, an Indian scholar whose groundbreaking essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” dynamically challenges the colonial mindsets that are often employed in the analysis of marginalized groups. In the case of the transgender community in southern India, the current situation is that the toxins of disease, poverty and ignorant policy are preventing this Subaltern from speaking. Swasti is founded on a dream of changing this narrative, and is in many ways a response to Spivak's piece. I am incredibly grateful to learn from this movement and from the people whose souls refuse to rest.

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On Border Crossing, Privilege, & Indian Driving

I arrive in Bangalore, India in the early morning of Wednesday, May 17. As I finish exchanging my United States dollars for a colorful stack of Indian rupees—rays of purple, orange and white glimmer from the notes clutched in my fist—I find myself overwhelmed by the tight hug of reality. This is it, I think as I step outside the airport into a thick wall of warmth and humidity. From New York to London to Mumbai to Bangalore, it has been quite the journey already. Here is to the most eventful one yet, I think as I nervously step through the airport doors. My eyes run through the line of taxi drivers standing outside the airport and eventually lock with those of a humble fellow bearing a laminated sign with my name on it. Without much of a verbal exchange, I find my way into his vehicle—sitting on the left side rather than the right, for automobile design is different in this part of the world—and careening down a long and winding path that leads into the city of Bangalore. Despite the fact that I have been to Bangalore two times before, this is my first time traveling from the airport in the daytime. No longer consumed by a wave of midnight, the highway looks elegant, energetic and inviting. Perhaps this contrast in day and night is symbolic of how different my time in Bangalore this year will be from my previous visits. Of course, some of the observations I made in my initial trips to India hold true even now; namely, regarding the erratic nature with which people drive. While the speed limit, from what I can tell, appears to be 60, the needle in the car’s speedometer constantly dances up to the mark of 110. Lane divisions appear to be insignificant, with cars bouncing to and fro as if they exist in a pinball machine. I find myself holding on to the edge of my seat, mesmerized by the rush of adrenaline that cannot exactly be found on highways in the U.S. In light of the intense traffic, the ride to the apartment where I will be staying is rather long, and I thus have some time to perform some free-form thinking. I find myself thinking about borders, and the privilege that comes with being able to easily cross them for the sake of an intercultural education. As the holder of a United States passport and Overseas Citizenship of India card, I was able to cross through the Indian border with relative ease. And as the recipient of a grant through the University of Michigan Center for South Asian Studies, I am able to pursue my internship in India—a country that experiences significant socioeconomic disparities—without having to worry about financial burdens. What does it mean to step into a community that in some ways is but in many ways is not my own, only to return five weeks later to circumstances of political, social, economic and educational privilege? Picture for Blog Post 2 Above: a picture taken from the road on which Swasti Health Resource Centre is located. I also find myself thinking about difference, and the ways in which our minds attempt to compensate for it by making faulty comparisons. It is so easy to compare aspects of unfamiliar India with my known worlds of suburban Connecticut and Ann Arbor. But in doing so, one inevitably does injustice to the new place and reduces its intricacies. Nobody can deny that India is different from these aforementioned places. But it is my home for the next five weeks, and its differences do not make it any less worth embracing. Finally, I find myself thinking about how my own identity as an Indian-American will shape my international experience. While my mocha colored skin allows me to physically blend in with those around me, my inability to speak or understand my mother tongue may be off putting to those I meet. Indian society has a tendency to idolize those who appear as foreign. But whether or not I fall into this category—as well as the nature of the unique experiences that will accompany this classification—are uncertain. My goal in writing these blog posts and reflecting upon my experiences is to demonstrate that India, like the United States and the numerous countries that span the distance between the two, is simply another place where people live, work and play. Along with its rich artistic traditions, presence in a rapidly evolving and technologically oriented world, and linguistic and cultural diversity, it is home for billions of people who know it as well as I know my hometown. In respecting the livelihoods of these individuals, I hope my blog posts capture less of myself and more of the beautiful country that will shape my next few weeks. ~ N.S.

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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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