By Abigail Conroy
For my STEP project, I participated in a combined study abroad and research experience in Manipal, Karnataka, India. I traveled to Manipal University with the Public Health Perspectives Program. There, I had the opportunity to take a course about global public health and attend field visits. In addition, I met dietetics professionals at Kasturba Hospital and collected information about the hospital diet.
I learned many important lessons from my STEP experience in India. However, there is one lesson that stands out from the rest: I am fortunate. That may be cliché, but as my time in India continued, I became increasingly more aware of all the opportunities that are available to me. I chose to write my final paper for the course on the topic, because recognizing these privileges was an eye-opening experience. Leaving the U.S. and traveling to a developing nation gave me a greater appreciation for everyday amenities like running water, air conditioning, and proper sanitation. In the hostel, we had access to clean water. But, you had to walk down the hall to get it, and you brushed your teeth using water from a water bottle. In the villages we visited, most people had access to clean water, but they had to go to a well. However, many people in India still lack access to clean water. And, in some of the villages we visited, there were homes without bathrooms or proper sanitation.
This experience also helped me recognize how fortunate I am to be able to attend college and have a career. I was reminded of this several times, particularly when we went on field visits to nearby villages or factories. Besides having access to education, I am fortunate in other ways as well. Prior to traveling to India, I never realized how difficult it is to be a minority, or how challenging it is to live in a place where you do not speak the local language. I was born in the U.S, and English is my first language. I typically do not have trouble communicating with people, because most of the people I interact with speak English too. I have blonde hair and a fair complexion, and dress like a typical American. When walking to class or traveling around Columbus, I do not attract much attention, because I look like everyone else. In India, that was not the case. I was unable to communicate, and I did not blend in—everyone could tell I was a foreigner. That was difficult for me to get used to, but I think that I ultimately learned a lot from the experience.
Most Memorable Moments
As I mentioned, the three most important “lessons learned” during my STEP experience were the following:
- I am fortunate to have basic amenities like clean, running water, air conditioning, and proper sanitation.
- Access to education should not be taken for granted.
- It is difficult to be a minority.
I have chosen to highlight these three areas of learning because they are most vividly remembered. For each statement I have made, I can recall a specific situation or experience that prompted me to come to that realization. As I spent more time in India, I slowly realized just how comfortable life is in America. I recognized that, despite not truly experiencing the everyday hardships that many people face in developing nations. The biggest thing I noticed on a daily basis was how much water I use in a day. Just brushing my teeth from start to finish would use up almost an entire 32 ounce water bottle. It is so hot and humid in India during May that I had to frequently refill my water bottle throughout the day. Fortunately, the hostels at the university had water dispensers, so all I had to do was walk down the hall to refill my water bottle. However, if we left the university for a field trip and I drank all my water, there was often no way to refill it with clean water. Access to water represented only a minor inconvenience during my trip, but it prompted me to consider what it would be like if I had to travel to a well or public water source every time I needed to get water. Another utility that most people don’t have in India is air conditioning. At the university, the classrooms and dorm rooms were air conditioned, but usually the hallways and other areas were not. Buses were not air-conditioned either. The issue of air conditioning brings to mind a particular field trip, where we visited a rural village on a very hot, humid day. After a somewhat tumultuous bus ride, we made it to a small village just outside the city. The houses there were very simple, and most had no windowpanes or doors. Many of the residents were seated outside their homes, trying to get some relief from the heat. As we walked through the village, some of the other students commented about how hot it was. I even remember thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to get back inside, where there’s air conditioning.” But after having that thought, I felt silly—watching the people sitting outside their homes quickly reminded me that many people do not have any relief from the heat. Air conditioning is not a universal commodity.
Appreciating my opportunity to get an education was probably the most significant take-away from my STEP experience in India. This realization was prompted by a field trip as well, this time to a Tile Factory in Udipi, which is the closest major city near Manipal University, where we were staying. I was so shocked by what I learned at the factory that I chose to write my final paper for the Public Health course on the topic. (You can also learn more about it here, on my blog: http://u.osu.edu/conroy.119/). In my final paper, I described what I witnessed at the Tile Factory. I saw men doing backbreaking labor, cutting tiles and heating them in a hot kiln. We learned that many suffer from musculoskeletal problems, due to the hard monotonous work. The loud noise leads to hearing problems, irritability, or confusion. Most of the men who worked there only had a fifth or sixth grade education. Of course, the men received a steady income, and compensation for on-the-job injuries. Most of them probably work at the factories for years, in order to support their families. But in spite of all that, life in the factory was unimaginable to me. As we boarded the bus, a group of men on break stared at us, and I wondered what they thought about this group of pale American students. What did we symbolize to them? Did they stare because we looked different, or because they knew that our lives would be easier than theirs? I will never know the answers to those questions. But I do know that I am grateful to have had that experience. Beyond that, I am thankful to be able to attend college. Often, my education is something that I take for granted. It is easy to get caught up in the routine of classes, homework and exams, and forget that many people do not have this opportunity. But after visiting the tile factory, it will be much harder for me to overlook the privilege of education.
Finally, I learned how difficult it is to be a minority. In India, I could not speak the local language, and I stood out because of my light skin and American style of dress. I felt like an outsider. When we walked around campus or traveled into the city, many people stared at us. Some people asked if they could take pictures with us, and others simply took pictures of us without asking. Sometimes I would turn around to find someone taking a picture of me, which was uncomfortable. In addition to the picture-taking, there are two experiences that stuck with me, even after the conclusion of my program. The first was an interaction I had while getting in an elevator at the hostel. After I got in the elevator, one of the employees approached me and asked me a question, speaking the local language. I could do nothing but stare at her, shaking my head. I felt foolish for being unable to communicate. She tried again, and asked if I was going up or down, using broken English. It took me a moment to comprehend what she was saying, but finally, I was able to answer her question. “I’m going up,” I explained, pointing up with my index finger. Bashfully, I said, “Sorry, only English.” In another situation, I was in a clothing store near campus and the sales clerk asked for my name. I told him my name was Abigail. With a chuckle, he responded by saying that I had a “strange name.” Of course, in the U.S. Abigail is a fairly common name, but to him, it was strange and difficult to pronounce. My name signaled to him that I was different, and that I came from a different cultural background.
I think that all of the experiences I have described will influence my career path, and the way that I practice as a Registered Dietitian in the future. Because of STEP, I will be able to empathize with patients who are minorities or immigrants. If I am counseling someone whose first language isn’t English, I will remember how difficult it is to communicate in a foreign language. The challenges that I faced in India will remind me to speak slowly and be patient when it takes people a long time to respond to my questions. I will be more attuned to cultural differences, which ultimately will make me a more effective practitioner.