Diversity and Democracy

Witnessing Transformations through Global Service Learning

The trajectory of my life changed in the summer of 2015 when I embarked on Cornell University’s Global Service Learning Program in India. It was the end of my sophomore year, and I had just made the decision to transfer out of my engineering major. I had discovered the global health pathway at Cornell, which led me on my first of three journeys to Southern India.

During my first summer in the program, I spent three weeks in the city of Mysuru taking courses on Indian civilization and culture, gender relations in India, the Indian health care system, and the Kannada language with our host nongovernmental organization, Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM). Then I went to live in Kenchenahalli, a village located two hours outside the city, where I worked in a rural primary care hospital. My service project was to update the hospital administration handbook, which allowed me to interview and shadow personnel across all hospital departments. This gave me an in-depth look into the hospital’s structure and practices. I was drawn to the Ayurvedic therapy department, where I observed therapists using holistic treatment and witnessed firsthand how specialized therapy could help patients improve their daily lives.

I left India that summer curious about this field. When I was asked to be a teaching assistant (TA) for the program the following year, I didn’t hesitate. I was excited to learn more about healthcare in India, and I saw the opportunity to further my professional growth by returning in a leadership role. I gained confidence in my abilities to work in different cultural settings and with a range of populations, which I still carry with me today.

While working as a TA, I also volunteered at Sneha Kiran of Mysore Spastic Society, a school for children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. I was impressed by the focus on daily physiotherapy sessions as well as academic and computer learning. The teachers empowered the students to realize their potential for growth and be proud of their abilities, which positively influenced their morale. The experience of one young girl with diplegia resonated strongly with me. When I first met her, I was told she would likely use a wheelchair for life. However, when I came back to the school the next summer, I saw her standing and walking with the aid of a walker. She radiated happiness in her increased leg strength and mobility and pride in her developing independence. Daily therapy at the school had changed her life. At that moment, I knew I wanted to play a role in catalyzing that kind of change for children in my future career.

At the same time, I traveled to various project sites and met with mentors one-on-one to check in on the Cornell undergraduate students and their projects. These meetings gave me the opportunity to examine similarities and differences in structures and routines across sites. I had the chance to observe rehabilitation practices at different locations, which ranged from a facility with a full-time physiotherapist and complete sensory gym, to focused multiday “camps” for children with disabilities and their mothers. These experiences led me to my own educational goals of studying the intersection of occupational therapy and global health while working with children with disabilities in resource-limited settings.

My three summers in India and my experiences at each of SVYM’s sites have had a tremendous impact on my life. Being able to take on the roles of student, teaching assistant, mentor, and friend shaped me into the person I am today. I am now enrolled in the doctorate of occupational therapy program at Tufts University, continuing my academic journey forged in India and through my undergraduate years at Cornell.

Tara Sarkar has a BS in Biology and Society with Minors in Global Health, Psychology, and Business for Life Sciences from Cornell University (2017) and is a Doctoral Student in Occupational Therapy at Tufts University.

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