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‘What did you do this summer?’

| Monday, September 11, 2017

After high school, summer ceases to be summer. Now that we’re all crazily motivated college students trying to make the most of the opportunities afforded to us, summer is a dearly precious few weeks in which we can learn some things outside (or in) the classroom, build our resumes and maybe do some traveling to bolster that all-important Instagram presence. Hyper-aware of the pressure to use my summer wisely but also wanting to look past myself, I applied for the ISSLP through the Center for Social Concerns. I can only describe my motivation back in October 2016 as “wanting to do something for the world.” As vague as that sounds, my rather inexpressible feelings stemmed from a commitment to service and a desire to take that commitment further. Almost one year later, I still find myself having an enormous difficulty expressing my thoughts and feelings about my summer in India.

My post-summer conversations with friends and family typically went a little bit like this: “Hey, Caroline! How was your summer in India!?” “Oh, hey! It was great, I met the most wonderful and generous people, and the food was so good!” “Wow, it’s so amazing that you did that! I loved seeing all your pictures.” “Yeah thanks! What were you up to this summer?”

I generally tried to quickly change the topic in an effort to push away the flurry of self-critical thoughts bouncing around my head: “It was great? You’re going to define your 10-week long roller coaster ride with a weak and meaningless monosyllabic expression like that? Oh yeah, and the — remember when you got food poisoning 3 times? Never mind, just accept their praise for your superficially selfless summer, and move on.”

My experience this summer feels impossible to describe in a single article, let alone in a passing conversation with a friend at a local pub in London, where I’m studying abroad this semester. But when given the opportunity, I’ll talk my friends’ (and strangers’) ears off about everything I learned and especially about the internal conflicts I still feel.

I spent my days this summer working at Vidya Sagar, a school for children with developmental disabilities in Chennai, India. In the morning, I aided an early intervention classroom and in the afternoon, I worked in the occupational therapy department. All summer, my sole purpose was to engage with kids and give them the love and attention they deserve. I sang cheery songs, attempted to teach lessons in a peculiar mix of English and Tamil and guided students through sensory-stimulating obstacle courses in OT. I loved letting go of self-absorbed occupations and living so intentionally for others. It felt so different from the academic life I live on campus that is so overtly self-focused.

But I know my summer wasn’t just about making kids smile. The resource expenditure of sending a young, uncertified American to teach students that primarily speak another language is unjustified unless the long-term investment in said American is accounted for. In other words, spending my summer in India was a selfish experience.

It certainly felt this way as I was leaving Vidya Sagar. Looking back on my nine weeks, I thought about everything I was given compared with what I gave. I was taken in by strangers and given a home. The teachers and staff at the school taught me about everything from cognitive development to Indian pop culture to unconditional love. They were eager to teach me their language, share their home-cooked food and explain Indian culture to me. Even strangers gave to me; once my partner and I were stranded on an overnight train, and a man gave up his sleeping berth for us. Compared to all that, my work at the school seemed so insignificant. I was there to see, to learn and to be with, and to be helpful wherever I could along the way.

If I let those 10 weeks be another resume building, Instagram boosting summer internship, then it is by all means a self-centered decision. It’s not enough to be grateful for what I learned and the relationships I built. The challenge of short-term mission work is living up to the investment of the experience. I am responsible for taking what I learned and using it to inform my attitudes and actions. I am responsible for maintaining a critical eye towards service and international development aid, wary of their great complexity. Perhaps most importantly, I feel called to be a witness to a life on the other side of the world and the poverty line.

A month into the school year, I am still struggling to explain myself in conversations about India. And I still know that what I say in a two or even 20 minute conversation cannot possibly convey what my summer meant to me, and how it still challenges me every day. But each time, I am reminded of that challenge and the witness I am called to be.

Caroline McGowan


Sept. 10


The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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