There are many ways to participate in the culture of southern India. To greet someone you put your hands together in front of your chest and bow forward while saying, “Vanakkam”. Taking off your shoes when entering someone’s home is also expected. Dressing modestly is important for women. Drinking tea and eating a small bite of food when sitting down with your hosts is another respectful way to behave. By following some simple ways of interacting one can feel more connected with the people of India and they will embrace your effort to learn about their culture.
This is the experience I had in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. I wore traditional clothing, ate the food offered and learned some Tamil phrases to show my respect. In return, people throughout India made me feel welcome and I am now part of a new family.
By living with an Indian family I was fully immersed in their day-to-day life. I learned to expect the unexpected, be flexible because plans will change, and to just go with the flow because there is no typical day in India. If a woman in the community phoned for help, we went to her. If a group arrived at the home to speak with us, we invited them in and chatted for hours. If our transportation was in the shop being fixed, we waited. Life moves on a different plane in India. No one got upset if plans were changed and everyone just took things in stride, one day at a time.
The majority of my service internship took place in a rural village in southern India called Virudhunagar. My days were spent volunteering for Unity Charitable Trust, which focuses on empowering women in the village and providing education to children. Unity has helped over 500 local women through English instruction, computer classes, child care service and teaching community-based entrepreneurship. This training includes giving the women small loans to start or expand a business for economic independence. My role at the organization was to assist the women with their English, learn about their businesses and technology use, and work at the preschool established by the organization. I also helped with tasks as needed such as giving young women swimming lessons at the local college pool, documenting the organizations work with video, and showing the women how to set up a YouTube account.
Unity is led by one of the village’s former grammar school teachers, Mary Vijaya. Mary is a devout Christian who gives her heart and soul to running the organization. Now Mary opens her home to volunteers like me to learn about the life of the women in Virudhunagar. Mary spoke to me at length about the stories of the women in the village. She explained how women were being abused by their husbands, were not being given money to feed their families, and without money, the children couldn’t attend school. About 10 years ago, after much prayer and reflection, Mary took action and formed Unity to help these village women and she has not looked back since.
When I started the doctoral program in learning technologies, I knew I wanted to combine my passion for technology with my desire to serve women in disadvantaged situations. This internship has strengthened my focus to serve and work to ensure women have the same education and economic opportunities that men have. The culture in India and in the village very much favors men. Hearing the women’s stories has made it clear to me that freedom is a human right not always afforded to women.
Getting to spend my school break in India has been an amazing experience. I greatly appreciate the support from Pepperdine University, the program faculty and especially Dean Weber for making this trip possible. I will stay in contact with Unity Charitable Trust and hopefully return in the future to see the progress that the organization has made impacting Indian women’s lives.