Volunteering abroad can influence lives in small but significant ways

Enakshi Ganguly

When I visited India two years ago, I left knowing that it would be a long, long time before I’d have the opportunity to return. Little did I know, there were other plans unfolding before me. In the summer of 2014, Nourish International gave me the chance to intern in two coastal villages in the Indian state of Odisha. For six weeks, four UT students, including myself, taught spoken English classes, created a mini-documentary by interviewing villagers, and empowered women through weekend workshops.

We lived at a convent in Gopalpur, a small village brimming with beauty. In the evenings, our students would come and play cricket or hopscotch with us. Some nights, we would all walk 10 minutes to the beach and jump into the ocean. Some nights, we would just sit by the shore and practice our “English conversation skills.” The weather was good to us those nights, and sometimes, we would even catch a full moon, hanging right above the dark crashing waves. One weekend, we had planned to go see a movie in Telugu, one of the many languages spoken in India. Our students were so excited because they would be able to teach us something, too! Unfortunately, that same day, the aunt of one our students passed away.

It was the first funeral that I went to. I remember the village women wailing in grief. I remember standing inside the hut, eyes closed, hands pressed together, praying with all the Christian villagers, a Hindu myself. Nevertheless, we all wanted the same thing. Peace. Peace for the mother, who was only a year younger than my mom and who had to bury her child. Peace for the soul of that woman. Peace for her three children. Witnessing such an event was deeply saddening, to say the least, but I also witnessed warm acceptance. We were foreigners, strangers to this community, but they let us be a part of such an intimate event. A death.

There were moments of joy, too. Some students would ask for more literature to read, or would sit and talk to us after class. Their English seemed to improve a little each day. One of our kids notified us that our lessons had been helping her pass tests in school. Small moments like those were the ones that kept pushing us to challenge ourselves — and our kids.

Although I tried extremely hard to stay impartial, I had my favorites. One of our brightest and youngest students, Sai, presented passion, focus and kindness in a way I had never come across before.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” Sai said. “When I get my degree, I want to come back to my village, and help my community.” He was one of the many students who actively empowered themselves with any and all resources provided to them. Although I miss all of my students, I think I miss him the most.

Volunteering in other countries is something that will change your life. It changed me. Six weeks felt like a year, only because I felt so different when I came back. That being said, do not believe that you will make dramatic change. It was small narratives like Sai’s that truly and deeply moved me. When I focused on the village as a whole, of course I felt resigned, hopeless. But community development is termed that for a reason. It’s a slow process. I appreciated the villagers and their lifestyle; I found beauty in them. At the same time, their options were limited. Kids like Sai deserve the right to choose their lifestyle, rather than be given only one option. Did we feel ineffective at times? Of course. Change does not happen overnight, but it does happen with consistent determination, passion and lots and lots of love. You can be the one to mobilize that change.

If you’re interested in participating in a project this summer, go to http://www.utnourish.org/, or contact me directly [email protected]

Ganguly is a government sophomore from Houston.