What Are You Doing This Summer?

In the few weeks I’ve been back from school, just about everyone has asked me what I’m doing this summer. The conversation usually goes something like this:

“I’m going to India.”

“That’s cool! Are you going for a mission trip or just to visit? What will you be doing there?”

“I got a fellowship from U of M to do independent research there.”

“What will you be researching?”

“I’m going to be studying urban planning. More specifically I’ll be determining the values motivating the decisions inside of city’s master plans.”

“That’s awesome! Very interesting!” (I’m always a bit surprised people find this interesting. I always figured this would be something that would be interesting only to me.)

“Where will you be staying?”

“I’m going to be in Bangalore and Amritsar mostly. Bangalore is a big city in the south which is sometimes called the silicon valley of India. Amritsar is up north and is a holy city for Sikhism, the Golden Temple sits in the middle of the city.”

(Usually after this I will be invariably told not to drink the water in India.)

What led me to pursue a fellowship to go to India began in high school. In my sophomore year I developed a fascination with religion, particularly eastern religions. I read the Tao De Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, a few of the Upanishads, an anthology of the Pali Cannon, the Dhammapada and other texts. Once I came to U of M I was required to take four semesters of a language. I never took Spanish or French, the only two languages offered at my high school and what most people take since they already know some of the language. I had a clean slate, and could pick any language I wanted. Of the forty plus languages I could have picked, I chose Sanskrit.

It was from Sanskrit class that I heard about the Summer in South Asia Undergraduate Fellowship. My professor sent my class an email encouraging us to apply. I felt timid about applying as a freshman so I didn’t even make an attempt. My friend from the class, Aaruran Chandrasekhar, however, applied and got the fellowship. I went home the summer after my freshman year and scrolled through social media seeing my friends post from their travel abroad. I desperately wanted to be somewhere other than home. I felt like I was missing out on something bigger.

That summer, I got a job with my local township government. Every summer they hire college kids to be assessing assistants, which meant that I and a partner would measure houses and ask property owners a few questions for the purposes of property taxes. I did this 40 hours a week, for three months. I measured hundreds of single family homes, met a few very unpleasant people, some very nice people, and found that most people were alright. After doing this for a few weeks, I began to realize that my home town looks the way it does for a reason. Someone decided that my town was to be a bedroom community and suburb of the city of Grand Rapids. The new developments in the area told me that wasn’t about to change either.

When I got back on campus in the fall, I knew that I didn’t want to go home again when summer came around. I saw Aaruren present at the SiSA symposium and knew that I wanted to apply for the fellowship and go to India. I started working on my application in November when I knew it wouldn’t be due until March. I thought of doing an internship since the structure might be better for me since I have never been to India and embarked on something this large before but I decided I wanted more of an adventure and chose to do independent research. It took me some time and a few meetings with some professors that I cold emailed to determine what I would study but eventually I figured out how to merge my long held interest in political theory with a new found interest in urban planning that stemmed from my time measuring houses. I found an adviser and decided to take an intro to urban planning class hoping it would help me get the fellowship and better prepare me for doing my research if I did manage to get it.

Now I’m a week away from getting on a plane and leaving the US for India. I’m nervous. I’m worried I don’t have all my ducks in a row. Have I done everything I need to in order to be prepared to leave? I knew I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and have an adventure so here I am doing just that. Of course it hasn’t felt real yet but it is dawning on me more as it approaches. But at least I won’t be spending the summer at home, and I know what to say when someone asks me what I’ll be doing this summer.

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Chris Olson

Chris is a sophomore planning to major in Political Science and minor in Community Action and Social Change. After graduating he hopes to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in political science to pursue a career in academia. In India he will be conducting independent research on urban planning. Chris plans to examine the master plans of Bangalore and Amritsar and learn what values are motivating planning in the two respective cities and why those motivations are present. From there he will compare those values of each city to understand how and why they may be the same or different, giving greater insight into how urban planning is being conducted in India.

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