I wish that in the days preceding my departure from Pittsburgh to Ahmedabad, I had felt some semblance of excitement fill me. Please make no mistake, I was well aware that this was such a unique opportunity for me to visit Ahmedabad which, as beautiful as I now find it, is hardly known by most Americans let alone a popular destination for traveling. I understood that DukeEngage was not only offering me the chance to do meaningful NGO work but explore my passions in finance, micro-entrepreneurship, and culture immersion. Yet, as I grappled with these feelings of either indifference or gloominess, I couldn’t pinpoint the cause of this anxiety. It couldn’t have been the fear of isolation due to distance — I have traveled abroad several times, leaving my friends, family, and occasionally comfort behind, and each time have felt a sense of strength in the independence that is required of me in such circumstances. It wasn’t the fear of cultural differences as I thrive in communities where it is necessary to adapt to cultural norms in an immediate and humble way. It wasn’t even the weather (although 100+ degrees and the constant feeling of stickiness is not my preferred working environment). And so I departed the airport, my hand clutching my passport (my mother would NOT be happy if I lost it) with this lingering feeling of apprehension which I was hopeful would abate as I reached India.
At every moment of my flight, I willed this change in mentality to happen, as if I could flick some on-switch button in my mind to turn me from over-thinking to calm, cool, and especially, enthused about what was to come. Of course, it is difficult to turn our minds from their current trajectory, and the long flight was spent restless in anticipation of the trip and, to my concern, how I could feign enthusiasm if necessary to both the NGO — Saath — my homestay family, and the DukeEngage staff. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried because in just under two weeks here, my mindset has begun to recalculate its priorities.
Here at Saath, we’ve had the opportunity to listen to many different voices at the office. Whether it’s the founder himself or the managers who work directly with the community speaking, I’m always struck by the meticulous way in which each and every program is created and implemented. Saath manages to factor in the smallest of details which is why I believe they’ve created a relatively large impact for a moderately-sized NGO. I wondered how such carefulness was ensured in each program, and I soon found my answer in the working environment of Saath.
You see, as an econ/finance student, I’m very use to assignments that require strict deadlines and projects that yield certain results. I thought that this type of high-stress environment would make many individuals thrive, yet at Saath, there seems to be a clear dedication on the process of creating a new program rather than the deliverable itself. Everyone seems eager to engage with everyone else, and seating arrangement throughout the office is very fluid. Chai tea (which is delicious and might be one of the highlights of my everyday) is brought at regular intervals, creating a sense of comfort. Whiteboards detailed with suggestions and round tables filled with conversing individuals fill the office, but no one seems in a rush to flood the printer or demand use of a laptop. Indeed, the environment, and perhaps even the culture at large, is conducive to one that values thoughtfulness rather than the American ideal of “productiveness”, yet is somehow no less efficient. And it is this very focus on creativity, and lack of immediate direction, that I think was subconsciously frightening me before my trip. I had felt compelled to somehow contribute to the community, and would still like to, but because it was not immediately clear to me what that might entail, I allowed myself to envision this trip as a stressful experience. But the past two weeks have taught me to brainstorm with others without feeling the need to have an end product, to interact with others who might have entirely different ideas, to not just hear, but listen, to the voices of the community, and of course, drink a little more chai. I’m certainly not over the slightly toxic-utilitarian concept of work, but I’m looking forward to visiting more entrepreneurs to hear their experiences, growing from my mentors, and embracing the idea that it is not when you get there (because you will) but how you crafted the path to success.