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The Life-Changing Experience of a Borlaug-Ruan International Intern

 
By Natasha Napolitano
2018 Borlaug-Ruan International Intern and 2019 Elaine Szymoniak Award Recipient

It’s been a year since I got back from India. During this time, I’ve learned how to make journal entries for bank loans, test for scoliosis, and--most impressively--use Google Calendar. In one year, I’ve learned a lot, but nothing compares to the amount I learned from my two months in Chennai, India, at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

My experience as a Borlaug-Ruan Intern was incredible; I had the opportunity to work both at the MSSRF headquarters in a major metropolitan area and do interviews in rural villages on the other side of the state. Throughout my experience, the largest challenge I encountered was my lack of Tamil language experience. Being able to relate with others is really important to me and communication is integral to that. Personally, I like having the power of communicating with everyone in their own language; it affords appropriate respect to the individual in whose country you are a guest. Tamil, however, is not a language you can learn via Duolingo, and the small phrases I scraped up from the internet were butchered by my American accent.

Slowly I managed to learn to thank my coworkers with “nandri” and started assimilating to office culture. From two tea breaks a day to the amazing lunchtime conversations, I felt immediately at home. Despite my limited language experience, I was able to make life-long friends on the other side of the world. What amazed me about working at MSSRF was that I could get to know anyone. Meeting with Professor Swaminathan and his wife Mina felt unreal; these were people you read about in the news, not someone you had dinner with. Yet, when I sat as a guest at their table, I felt welcomed and honored beyond belief.

Moving away from Chennai for three weeks to conduct interviews was slightly scary at first. I had packed nearly everything I owned in a backpack and some food in a canvas bag. On the five-hour train ride with my brilliant mentor Manjula Menon, I was nervous that we would fall asleep and miss our stop. All my worries were for nothing; by the next morning I was looking out the apartment’s window onto the mountains surrounding Kannivadi.

My schedule for research was filled with early mornings and late nights. I would wake up with the rising sun to the sound of trucks, head to the villages with the amazing MSSRF staff, and conduct interviews. But my favorite times were later on. When the kids came home from school and tutoring, we would go outside and play games. Perhaps it was childish, but it had been a month and a half since I’d seen my four younger brothers, and connecting with my neighbors made me feel at home. I learned plenty of games I hadn’t known and in turn taught them some of mine. A year later, I still miss playing “kabbadi” after dinnertime.

The fieldwork aspect of my research was an incredible opportunity. The strength of the women I spoke to was unparalleled. When a complete stranger tells you about how her two children died ten days after being born and another nurses her fifteen-day-old child during the interview, you see the entire life-cycle. Their stories may have created my project, but learning from them gave me context for my work, a personal connection to widespread issues, and a greater understanding of my personal life.

At the end of my time in India, I had grown. I could direct a cabby and hold a basic conversation in Tamil (with the help of many hand gestures), I could find factors and trends between multiple interview stories, and I had a personal connection to a country halfway across the globe. My biggest challenge in the beginning ended up being an opportunity for me to communicate with people other ways: listening to their stories, sharing a meal with them, and playing games. For this and so much more, I thank the World Food Prize Foundation and MSSRF. For allowing me to pursue a project that at first may not have fit into a small pre-set box, thank you. For welcoming me with open arms and letting me become a part of the office, thank you. For giving me the opportunity to travel to India and for recognizing this work with the Elaine Szymoniak Award, thank you. I never dreamed that my interest in women’s health and breastfeeding could grow into an international project and for this, I thank every person that made this possible.

11/25/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment
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