Nicolette Chiem“I did the Fall semester in Mumbai program with an internship component. India is one of the most impacted places in the world where care isn’t as available or efficient so I really wanted to help out in some way. Every single person in the program got an internship in some field and we all learned about the developmental goals for the country. For the first month we studied economics and development at St Xavier’s College, with a professor from UC Merced.

I worked at an NGO called DESIRE Society, they help take in children who have been abandoned or orphaned due to HIV. I worked with their health and psychology projects. The center I was in had 31 kids, and only two of them spoke English. We only had one very short 2 hour class to learn the language over there and it only covered the basics. Mostly for me, it was hard since the psychology portion requires me to do case studies on the children. That required me to talk to them about their lives and see what they remember, but the researchers weren't readily available to translate so it was difficult at times. 

I had to get used to the pollution and the larger density of people. There is a lot of times where you don't have any elbow room when you’re walking on the street. You also have to be careful where you eat, and you can’t drink any of the tap water. I lived at the YWCA hostel with all the other UC students. We liked to go to as many festivals as we could, the biggest one that happened while we were over there was the Diwali festival. There was also Ganesh’s birthday, and they have a tradition of sinking idols of him in the ocean. There’s one giant one that gets pulled into the ocean, and then people can also sink their own personal ones. They’re all made out of clay and they don't dissolve easily, so when I was walking around on the beach, I would see very decayed Ganesh idols popping out of the sand.

The food over there is really good, everything has so much flavor. You think everything is made in different ways but then you found out that its mostly masala and butter. It’s still really good, and when you travel around India, you can tell how their culture affects the different style of food. I visited Delhi, Alleppey, Hampi, and Goa.

I would say the hardest part of studying in India was the cultural difference. It’s really hard to be a woman visiting India, you face a lot more harassment. Regardless, because it was so crowded at any time, I rarely felt un-safe. Transportation is also completely different, trains get really crowded and people push and pull each other off to get on. They are also really respectful to foreigners and visitors though, most people will help you out and tell you how to get places. My co-workers were really friendly and introduced us to people and invited us to their homes for dinner. I was treated more like a guest than as just another employee at their office. The caste system was noticeable in every work place. It feels like theres a more clear hierarchy over there. When looking at records of the kids, it shows what caste they belong to also, and then it becomes even more noticeable in the smaller villages.

A trip to India alone can be really mentally and emotionally exhausting. It’s completely different from the US, even in the most poorest inner city areas. You kind of have to be emotionally strong, or anti-fragile, because you'll see a lot and your heartstrings will get pulled. You’ll want to help but you also have to have common sense about how to deal with certain situations because there are people who will try to scam you. My group and I came to a consensus that being part of this program allowed us to experience India, do some work for the community, and also have people to lean on when it got rough. I think anybody traveling there should try to go with somebody at least, because if you ever fall down or do something wrong, there'll be someone there to catch you.

What I took away the most from my experience is that compassion is not something you can learn from a text book. You have to go out and see that there are bad things everywhere, and ask yourself if you’re willing to help instead of just saying someone should do something about it. It’s also important to empathize or sympathize with people or there will just be this disconnect when trying to help or get to know people. Be more willing to get out of your comfort zone and learn these things, or else you’re just gonna be stuck in a little bubble.”