Adjusting to Life as an AIF Fellow

Silpaa Gunabalan, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Silpaa Gunabalan)

Coming to India

When I accepted my position as a Banyan Impact Fellow through AIF, I imagined living abroad to be transformative. As an Indian American with a passion for global and public health, I was excited to reconnect with my roots while addressing the issue of preventable blindness with Forus Health. I fantasized about making new friends, learning new languages, and doing important work with my host organization. The program started slow- it was online- which provided me with ample opportunity to say goodbye to my friends and family and prepare myself for almost a year in India. I was nervous but excited. As I met more fellows in Zoom breakout rooms, my anticipation grew. I wanted to meet everyone, settle in Bangalore, and start working.

Once I reached India, I felt at ease with the team of fellows assembled by AIF. The fellows and I spent 10 hours a day in the conference room at “Zorba the Budha” where we bonded over our backgrounds, experiences, and feelings about the fellowship.

By the end of orientation, I was sad to leave the 17 people with whom I became quick friends, but I was excited for a new adventure in Bangalore. I imagined meeting people with similar goals and values to mine whom I could easily work with to make eye care more accessible throughout India. However, I was not prepared for the realities that came with living in a completely new city, where everything was foreign to me.

Life in Bangalore and at Forus

My first day in Bangalore was amazing. After discovering that my hotel was only an 8-minute walk from Forus Health, I decided to explore the area. I spent the day drinking chai, eating chaat, and wandering through a multi-story bookstore.

Some of the fellows and I during our trip to Qutab Minar. (All photos courtesy of the author)

When I arrived at Forus Health, I was surprised by the 4-story, fluorescently lit, green and orange office building. I spent the first couple of weeks talking with the managers of different departments to get a better idea about the company’s products and operations. While meeting these individuals was helpful, I became increasingly confused as to how my project fit into the company. My project largely focuses on creating a theoretical framework to increase the availability of affordable, comprehensive eye exams. I did not receive the education as to how to make it that I hoped I would. I felt greater discomfort when people inquired about my qualifications. With my biology and public health background, I did not understand how I could contribute to this business-oriented project. I slowly started to feel like I did not belong in my HO.

Living in the city was not easier. It felt impossible to find a place to live within my budget where I would not sacrifice safety. When I finally did, the place was full of grime, cobwebs, and dust. It took me a month to finally feel settled. I live in a largely Kannada-speaking area, meaning that it is difficult for me to communicate with others even when getting groceries. Making friends was equally tricky. I was scared to attend meetup groups and go out alone. Although I am surrounded by people in a big city, the lack of connection to anyone or anything feels isolating and lonely at times.

Making Bangalore My Home

To overcome these difficulties, it has been important for me to find ways to connect with others. The fellows became a great support system for me. Although no one lives nearby, they are simply a call away and can relate to many of the challenges that I face daily. Additionally, with both Indian and American fellows in the cohort, people had connections in Bangalore with whom I was able to meet. Through these networks, I was able to finally make a friend with whom I explore cafes and attend music events. To keep myself busy during the week, I decided to join a dance class, an activity in which I have always wanted to participate. While I am probably the worst in the class, it is nice to have a safe place to exercise while making friends.

A Forus Health optometrist performing a refraction exam as part of comprehensive eye exams offered at corporate healthcare camps.

On the work front, I was finally able to find excitement during field visits. Observing comprehensive eye exams in different settings helped me to understand the impact that the company wants to have. I could understand why my project is necessary and why they need a fellow to provide an outside perspective. Furthermore, the field visit helped me to interact with more people at my company and learn about the different roles. I am excited to continue working with these people throughout the fellowship.

While it has been hard to adjust to living in a new city, I do believe that it will help with my personal growth. As time goes on, adjusting to life seems to get easier, and I am starting to enjoy the fellowship more.

About the Author:
Silpaa Gunabalan is serving as an American India Foundation Banyan Impact Fellow with Forus Health in Bengaluru, Karnataka. For her fellowship project, she is helping to develop an economic model to increase access to vision screening services. Silpaa is from Pleasantville, New York. She studied Human Biology, Health, and Society at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She is passionate about global health and health equity. While at Cornell, she participated in global health research in Mosh, Tanzania where she investigated acute respiratory infection in children under five. Additionally, Silpaa recently worked at a free health clinic in New York City where she spoke with patients to identify the social determinants of health they experience. She hopes that this experience will aid her while doing community outreach during her fellowship project. Silpaa’s family lives in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu which inspired her to pursue this fellowship opportunity. She is excited to immerse herself in Indian culture while learning more about effective global health solutions.



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