Study Abroad Opens Doors to the World: How One CIEE Alum Returned to India
By Priya Charry (CIEE Study Abroad, Hyderabad, India, 2013)
In my junior year of college, most of my friends studied abroad in well-known locations in Europe or South America. I decided that I wanted to go to a lesser-known destination. The desire for a unique and immersive experience, combined with my family's Indian heritage, led to India as my country of choice for a study abroad program.
As I researched options in India, CIEE Hyderabad emerged as the best fit. The Arts & Sciences program allowed me to study humanities with students from across the U.S. while exploring India through field trips and homestays. Hyderabad is centrally located in the country, allowing for affordable plane, train, and bus travel to many other cities. I was able to travel extensively during my semester there. All of these factors contributed to the amazing semester I had with CIEE Hyderabad!
Hyderabad is a dynamic, diverse city with something for everyone. There are remnants of the former Nizams (sovereigns of Indian states) in the palaces, tomb complexes, and the sprawling fort. You can explore stunning rock formations and hiking trails, visit a number of temples and mosques, and have some of the best food in all of India – Hyderabadi biryani! There are also a number of new breweries, pubs, restaurants, and stores. A lot of the recent development has been in the technology sector, with high-rise office buildings and eateries popping up in my neighborhood – Hitech City. This is a well-developed neighborhood with students, workers, and visitors from all over the country, and the world!
In Hyderabad, I felt like I had found a place where I could make a real difference. This affinity for India – the people, the geography, the music and art, the food – reinforced my connection to my distant Indian heritage. When my study abroad term ended, I made a commitment to return to India, either for extended study or work opportunities.
After college, I earned my master's degree in Library and Information Science and worked as a librarian in Boston. My work involved one-on-one interactions with communities and individuals to fulfill their various information needs. Unfortunately, these kinds of services are not widely available in most of India. I decided that I wanted to learn about the NGO/nonprofit sector in India and how my future career as a librarian and a public servant could unfold there. However, there were not many opportunities for early-career librarians to work in libraries in an international context. I learned more about the available options and found a fellowship that would take me there.
In September of 2017, almost five years after my semester abroad, I returned to India as a participant in the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, a ten-month service fellowship through the American India Foundation. When applying for this fellowship, I emphasized my experience in Hyderabad and my current work interests. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that one of the available placements was for an arts-based program at a nonprofit in Hyderabad – a perfect fit! In my interviews with the fellowship staff and with the nonprofit itself, I found that my prior experience in the city was a huge bonus in the selection process. It made the settling-in process a whole lot smoother, allowing me to jump into my work much sooner with a baseline degree of knowledge. It also demonstrated that I was willing and eager to create a fulfilling life here and make close connections with the community. The introductory Hindi course that I took during my semester abroad also proved to be very helpful while traveling during my current fellowship. It gave me a solid foundation for the language and, most importantly, taught me how to read the Devanagari script.
It felt a little uncanny, at first, to be in India again. I knew I would benefit from extended professional experience in India, so I was excited to return. However, so much has changed in the past five years! From infrastructure (with the new Hyderabad metro under construction) and technology (with apps ruling daily life), it took a couple weeks to acclimate to my new home and to shift from the mindset of a temporary student to an adult employee. And without a network of students/fellows in the same city, I felt a bit isolated during the first few weeks. But it was a huge relief to know that I had my CIEE host family just across the city, welcoming me with open arms.
Soon after I arrived in Hyderabad, I made a visit to my host mom and her daughter. It felt like nothing had changed (except my host sister, who had grown about a foot taller!). After reconnecting with my host family and CIEE staff, I felt much more at home and ready to settle into ten months of work. Both my host mom and I work full-time in different parts of the city, making it difficult to find time to see each other, but we message often and get together when we can. I'm so grateful for this relationship during this fellowship.
My fellowship placement is at the nonprofit organization Youth4Jobs, which runs a national network of placement-linked employment skills centers for youth with disabilities. My project, Not Just Art, is a new startup of the organization. We work with artists with disabilities to promote and sell their artwork online, ensuring sustainable livelihoods for them and their families. We also hold art workshops for children with disabilities in local schools. The project became operational last year and is off to a great start!
My work requires interaction with colleagues in our office and with artists across the country. Though much of the work is based in my office, I have had the opportunity to visit artists at their homes, represent the organization at events, and even lead an art workshop for visually impaired children. These interactions with the community remind me why I came back to India and why I want to work here long-term. I am gaining valuable skills in my project management role, from web development to curriculum development to social media management. These skills are not tied to an Indian context, but will be helpful in any future work environment.