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The first weekend after I arrived in Ahmedabad, I flew to New Delhi to visit my aunt. While I was explaining to my aunt’s daughter (my cousin) what DukeEngage was, she seemed impressed by the resources that Duke invests in the program, but was also confused.

“Why did Duke send you here?”

I rehearsed the carefully-thought out answer we discussed during our DukeEngage Academy: “We came to assist the NGO Saath in whichever way we are able to contribute, and we came to gain new experiences through cross-cultural immersion.” My cousin has almost finished her PhD in Economics, and she is one of those intellectuals who tends to be highly critical of most ideas she comes across. I sat back and smiled, pleased that I had delivered the most politically correct answer I could find.

She leaned forward. “Where else does Duke send kids?”

Proud to share, I claimed, “Lots of places! My friends have been to Jordan, Guatemala, Peru, Togo, and Thailand!”

“So DukeEngage is basically poverty tourism? Why don’t you stay in the US to help your own poor people?”

I responded by explaining that we have domestic programs too, and that the international programs help us learn about underprivileged communities through a different lens.

She continued her questioning. “So Duke sent you here to “learn about our poor people,” rather than to learn from our talented, skilled professionals?”

This question left me at a loss of words. Why were we here?

My cousin elaborated, explaining how she has met many American exchange students who came to study with her at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Every time they come, she takes them around New Delhi to visit national monuments and architectural wonders. And every time, they keep asking to see the slums. I understand why they are so insistent on visiting slums: the exchange students want to see something they can’t see in America. But I also understand why my cousin felt insulted:  the exchange students’ conception of “something in India that is not in America” was mostly slums. Did India not have anything else unique to offer?

My cousin prompted me to contemplate our purpose here. I had always considered DukeEngage as an opportunity to learn about a place that is different from Duke, but I never realized that it is also an opportunity to learn from and interact with India’s best and brightest. Here at Saath, us Duke students have the privilege of working alongside so many intelligent, passionate colleagues who have designed such innovative and thriving community development programs. My discussion with my cousin has inspired me to take advantage of this opportunity by interacting more with our colleagues and asking them questions about their work, rather than staying inside my comfort zone of only talking to my fellow Dukies.

Interacting with colleagues here has already proved meaningful to my experience. One afternoon at the office, we found ourselves sitting next to a young Indian woman. After our basic introductions, we found out this women had completed her masters in policy work, and I ventured a simple question: “what work are you up to?” This led to a robust discussion about informal housing. She has been interviewing government officials and people in informal settlements about a new policy that allows residents to pay monthly installments to gain legal ownership of their home. Her goal is to understand the discrepancies between what the government officials want and what the residents want, and ultimately make a policy recommendation to the government. During her interviews, she learned that many residents had trouble affording their monthly ownership payments. Residents frequently took loans from local moneylenders who charged a 2% monthly interest rate. She explained how this is not advisable because micro-finance institutions are more credible and charge an annual 15% interest rate, which is better in the long-run. However, residents tend to be scared off by the micro finance institutions because they are strangers to the community and the 15% seems too high at first glance. Since I had learned about the role of local moneylenders in tight-knit communities during my “Global Development” class at Duke, I was intrigued to hear this real-world example.

After that day, our discussion had floated to the back of my mind as Spencer, Kimberly (two of my fellow participants) and I dived into our project. Our task has been to draft a business curriculum that will be used to mentor micro-entrepreneurs working in the informal sector. A couple of weeks later, while Kimberly and I were discussing how to write about micro-finance institutions in our loan acquisition manual, my discussion with the Indian woman resurfaced. Recalling that communities are more likely to trust their local moneylenders, we decided to draft a section on how to know if your local moneylender is taking advantage of you, and why low monthly interest rates are not always better than higher annual interest rates. Coming from America, we would not have understood the context of loan acquisition in informal settlements without our interaction with our colleague. Learning from our coworkers has  allowed us make more comprehensive manuals that are sensitive to the reality of the informal sector.

As we continue our internship, my goal is to immerse myself in our field trips and push myself to strike up conversation with others in the office. There is so much more than just “slums” that I have found here that I have not yet found in America. I have learned about my mentor’s creative ideas for supporting the informal economy. I have witnessed how a community-empowerment NGO is organized. I have seen unique training centers that are successfully transforming the landscape of career possibilities for young women.

I sometimes feel nervous to approach others, but we’ve always known that DukeEngage is about challenging yourself and learning from your new environment. I now realize that the “environment” you learn from is not limited to the communities you strive to help; it also includes your impressive excursions, your innovative NGO, and your insightful colleagues.