Published February 27, 2017
Sitting on the veranda outside of my room at the Mata Amritanandamai Math Ashram, I am serenaded by a chirping cricket, the rustling of leaves in the gentle cool breeze. In the distance, I can hear the soft whispering of the Bagivati River, a tributary of the Ganga, as it rushes past us on its daily journey. After four long days on a train, then 6 hours winding through the Himalayas by taxi, I took a few moments to soak up the beautiful scenery surrounding us before beginning our work in Dunda, a small village in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand.
Thanks to the University at Buffalo’s Community for Global Health Equity, I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks of my summer working with Amrita University, a top-ranked private university spanning 5 different states in India, to help develop and expand a drug and alcohol prevention program in a rural village in Northern India. As an MSW/MPH student with prior experience in adolescent drug and alcohol prevention and education and an interest in international health, this program seemed like a perfect fit! The majority of my time was spent working in the Amrita CREATE lab (the Center for REsearch in Advanced Technologies for Education), to learn about, modify and develop lesson modules that educate younger children and their peers on relevant health issues including nutrition, substance use, and gender equality.
While working at Amrita, I worked at Amritapuri which is nestled in a quiet, scenic fishing village in the South Indian state of Kerala. Amritapuri is also the site of the University chancellor’s primary Ashram, a spiritual retreat center where a mixture of Hindu guru’s, students, tourists seeking enlightenment and devotees come together to learn, fellowship and meditate. Living at the Ashram during this time was a truly amazing and eye-opening experience that helped me better understand the culture and community in which I was living and working.
My main objectives while in India were to work with colleagues from CREATE to expand the Amrita Awareness Ambassadors (AAA) program to a new community. AAA trains student ambassadors to educate younger children and their peers on issues including nutrition, substance use, gender equality and adolescent health. After four weeks of research and development, as well as a preliminary field visit to evaluate an existing AAA program in a Kerala village, our team set off on the long journey across the country to Dunda, a small Himalayan mountain-village in the North-Eastern state of Uttarakhand, which boarders Tibet and Nepal.
Once in Dunda, our team began the first phase of the AAA program - a general awareness session about decision-making and the consequences of substance use for all students at one of the high schools. Though shy at first, the students were very responsive by the end. The following day we began phase two - training ten selected students to be ambassadors, or peer leaders. Over the next few days, these ambassadors participated in knowledge and skill-building activities to further develop awareness about the health effects of various substances, as well as presentation skills and confidence in how to talk to peers and family about substance use. Our team’s aim was to ensure that this program would be sustainable after we left. Toward the end of their training, the ambassadors were challenged to create a program of activities (phase three) that they would be responsible for facilitating each month over the subsequent six months. –Program activities included presentations, dramas, games, poster competitions and more. The Amrita CREATE staff would remain in contact with these ambassadors by phone to provide support for each monthly activity.
Despite a few unexpected challenges, our time in Dunda came to an exciting close as the ambassadors successfully performed their skit at the primary school. The girls captivated their kindergarten-5 grade audience with the story of a few friends who face some harsh consequences after choosing to spend an evening drinking and smoking cigarettes. Before leaving the school, both students, ambassadors and some of our team members took turns singing, dancing and reciting poems.
I learned a lot from my time in India working with the Amrita Awareness Ambassadors program. The relationships we built with student Ambassadors, even in the short time we were there, were incredibly rewarding. Time will tell what kind of an impact our intervention has had on students and families in Dunda. While the CREATE team has planned future visits to reconnect with the Dunda Ambassadors and continue to expand the work of the AAA program, I realize now how distant and disconnected I am from any ongoing follow-up. As I settled back into my routine here in the US and packed my schedule again with homework assignments, research, internships and work, I find myself wondering whether the relationships I invested in over those brief few weeks will have a lasting impact. My time in Kerala and Dunda challenged me to think about the methods we utilize to develop public health programs in communities that we do not belong to, and how valuable it is to invest time building rapport with community members and embedding the program into the frameworks and existing strengths of that community to ensure its longevity and effectiveness. Nevertheless, I am truly appreciative of the opportunity I had to work with Amrita University and the many lessons I learned through this experience.