By Jake Houle, American University ’15
My life will never be the same after my time in India. After being home from India for a few months now, not a single day goes by when I don’t think back to it. I think of the plane ride, the airport, the food, the heat, the traffic, the landscape, the music but above all, the people.
What impacted me the most from the entirety of my journey to India was the love and warmth of the people I met there. Right when we stepped outside of the airport terminal, I was greeted and embraced by group of Indians and welcomed with great enthusiasm. This type of greeting was more than enough for me to forget the seemingly endless 19-hour flight I had just completed. From that moment until my journey ended in India, I experienced that same level of kindness, warmth, and above all love from my new Indian friends.
During my time there, I worked with Communities Rising a nonprofit organization that runs after school programs in rural villages in south India. I traveled with a small group of college students from American University as part of their Alt Break program. The highlight of our trip was working as counselors at the annual residential summer camp hosted by CR. This is the 4th consecutive year that American University students have traveled to India to work to volunteer at the summer camp.
There, we worked along side 30 Indian camp counselors-mostly college and high school students who have been volunteering at the camp since it first started 4 years ago. Camp activities included arts and crafts, performing arts, Lego robotics and photography and lots in between.
Having been a competitive swimmer in the past, I was lucky enough to work at the pool where we introduced 180 local Indian children to the wild, fun, and at first, scary world of swimming! The challenge of the 110 degree heat, language barrier and the sometimes-overwhelming excitement of the kids just melted away when I saw how brightly they smiled as I held them while they experienced swimming for the very first time. It was truly amazing how even with no verbal exchange, there was such a great sense of trust and understanding between the campers and me. When lessons were over, the English-speaking Indian senior counselors and junior counselors were just as eager to learn how to do the different formal strokes in swimming. They were so impressed by the butterfly stroke in particular, that by the end of the week I felt as if my arms would fall off!
This was just one small experience that I had while in India. Every day, was a completely new adventure for me and the other American University students whether we were shopping in Pondicherry, swimming in the ocean at Mahabalipuram or exploring the nearby town of Vikravandy.
Now that I have arrived back home and am getting back to my routine, I carry with me the experiences from that trip and the lessons learned from it. I walked with the people through their daily routine and exchanged ideas about life, love, politics, religion, and family. I find myself constantly referencing these exchanges in my conversations about such topics here at home.
My experience taught me that there is not substitute for experiencing India and it’s people and culture first hand. My work with CR allowed me to gain a broader perspective and to grow as a political science major. It is one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about how other countries, but it an entirely different thing to actually go and experience living and working side by side with the people who live there. This experience has impacted the way I view politics not only around the world, but here in the United States too.
I hope to return back to India one day, and reconnect with the many people I met and with whom I developed friendships. I want to go back to do more work with Communities Rising, but I also want to go back to learn more about India, and how it is meeting the challenges it faces in today’s global economy.
I have no doubt that this trip had a greater impact on me than I did on the Indian counselors and campers with whom I worked. I have a new appreciation of not only India and its people, but of my responsibility to the global community. At this point in my life, I don’t know how I’ll meet that responsibility but I do know that it is something that is now an important part of my life and my future.