Volunteering in Africa or Vacationing?

Last week, I came across a student organisation on campus which raised funds to help African women affected by Obstetric Fistulas to undergo surgery. They climbed mount Kilimanjaro for fundraising and this year, they have raised over $18,000. When this organisation advertised its info session, I was intrigued.

Before the information session, I didn’t know what Obstetric Fistulas were. There was a slide to explain what was the ’cause’ for which the organisation was working. The speaker said that when women give birth without medical care, some of them have fistulas in their birth canals. And consequently, they are abandoned by their families and friends because they don’t want the curse. The money the organisation raises goes into surgeries to correct the fistulas in women affected by it.

Then came a series of slides about the trip to mount Kilimanjaro. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable trip to take. However, I was not so impressed with the tourism like aspects of the trip. There was a safari, a party and a four day service project at an international agency where they interacted with Tanzanian children. I had my doubts: how can anyone even understand, let alone serve the people another country in just four days?

But that aside, I found the cause and the trip worthwhile, until one of the last slides. At the end, the president of the club informed us that the trip costs about $3,000 per person.

This past January, thirteen students had taken this trip. In all, they had spent about $40,000 to get attention, through which they raised $18,000 for their cause. Well, that doesn’t make sense to me. If the members had directly donated half the cost of the trip they were taking ‘for the affected African women’, they would have crossed their fundraising goal.

I was am disillusioned. Who was this trip really for? For the African women who are suffering from an obstetric fistula or to ease the guilt of students who were simply taking a vacation in Africa? While I appreciate the fundraising, the trip itself did not sound like a “service trip” to me. Unless we consider the $40,000 that went into the local economy of Tanzania to be a form of service.

Two days before the info session, I had read a guest column in the Cornell Sun titled “African Aid: Your Help Might Hurt” by Daniel Lumonya, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His words captured my feelings perfectly.

“You may realize how very little you know about the people you wish to save or about what they have to deal with every day. In fact, you may soon realize that your projects are no different from treating a compound fracture with a band aid or a cavity with Tylenol. In both cases, you will leave the patient worse off than how you found them. So if you choose to go to Africa without the proper knowledge and skills, go with the intention of visiting, not helping: Go to learn, not to save.”

When I left the info session at the end, I was angry but mostly disappointed. I’ve had some long conversations with other students about this and related topics. But I don’t know what I can do about this. I’m frustrated. For now, I’m just compiling a list of books or documentaries to educate myself.

Where was I during February Break?

This being the first year of the ‘February Break’, a long weekend with Monday and Tuesday off, Cornellians have been very vocal about this addition to the academic calendar.

Although I love breaks, it’s so early in the semester right now that I feel it disrupts the ‘flow’ of the semester. A week after add/drop, just as I’m getting used to my schedule and workload, it’s February break.

But I probably should not be complaining. Over the weekend, I visited friends I hadn’t seen in nearly two years. On Friday afternoon, I boarded a bus to NYC and then another from NYC to Yale, New Haven.I left at 2:00 P.M. and reached at 11:oo P.M.  Since I was so excited to see them, the long bus ride did not bother me.

I had a great time with my friends on Saturday and also enjoyed seeing the Yale campus. While we watched the Yale – Princeton basketball game that evening, I was so overwhelmed by school spirit (although I don’t even attend Yale) that I decided that I had to attend more sporting events at Cornell. There’s just something about sports that brings people closer.

On Sunday morning, I left Yale at 11:00AM. Right now, it’s 9:ooPM and I’m still on a bus to Ithaca. I did not realize before just how ‘in the middle of nowhere’ we are. I’m writing this blogpost in a mood of fatigue and frustration. I spent 36 hours at Yale and 18 hours on buses this weekend.

Given the number of students at Cornell and the number of visitors (ranging from guest speakers and professors to prospective students and parents/friends) Cornell has everyday, I wonder why Ithaca is not better connected world around it. Air travel from Ithaca is ridiculously expensive, not all students own cars, there’s no train service from Ithaca, leaving us with only the option of buses. Now I see why Cornell’s location is a disadvantage in some ways.

On the other hand, it also reminds of the concept of ‘spatial equilibrium’ that keeps coming up in my writing seminar about urban economics. Cornell’s remote location is offset by its beautiful campus and tranquil surroundings. In how many other schools do students see atleast three gorges or waterfalls on their way from their dorm to class?

On Thursday night, there was fresh snow in Ithaca and some of my housemates decided to go cross country skiing at midnight. They had a great time and it was all on campus! The amount of open space we have and the range of outdoor activities is so vast that four years at Cornell is not enough time to explore it for most of us.

Moreover, Ithaca not being a huge city helps keep the student life at Cornell more integrated. It encourages us to be more involved on campus, in clubs and events.

Cornell’s location has its disadvantages, but the location is an integral part of our many memorable experiences at Cornell. Although I’m not going to stop complaining about the combined 18 hour bus ride anytime soon (I could have been back at home in India in 18 hours), I am glad about the benefits that come with Cornell’s beautiful, remote campus.

P.S.: This also proves that we’re the most Hogwarts like school. Hogwarts was so far away from everything else. They had to endure a long train ride to get there too. And our collegetown/commons area is comparable to Hogsmeade in Harry Potter.

Performing The Vagina Monologues

In November, several students from my theatre troupe (Ordinary People) were going to audition for a play which is produced annually by the Cornell Women’s Resource Center. I decided to audition as well. Although the play is very well known in the United States and has been performed for many years, I had never heard of it. It’s the episodic play “The Vagina Monologues”, written by Eve Ensler.

It’s not surprising that I had never heard of it before. In India, as in many other regions of the world, the word Vagina cannot freely be used in public. There’s a lot of shame, hesitation and embarrassment associated with it. In a place where the very word is taboo, I cannot expect an entire theatrical performance about Vaginas.

Last year, women from Beijing Foreign Studies University performed the Vagina Monologues in Beijing, China. They adapted the play to make it locally relevant. They were slandered on the internet and were threatened. “How could BFSU admit such vulgar girls?” and “If my daughter did this, I’d slap her across the face,” had been some of the least misogynistic responses online.

Most of the people who posted these comments probably did not even know what the play was about. The title was enough to awaken the moral police in them. I do not know if anyone has ever tried to perform the Vagina Monologues in India. But if there had been any public performances, I would expect a similar reaction to it in India.

Growing up in a different generation and environment, it’s easy for someone like me to label these people as ‘narrow minded’ or ‘conservative’. But I acknowledge that the context of their opinions and the experiences that have led to them cannot be explained by one label. So it’s completely acceptable for someone to not approve of the Vagina Monologues, but what I would ask of them is to read or watch the play, to understand its purpose before judging it.

Personally, I appreciate the Vagina Monologues for starting the conversation on women’s issues. But there are many aspects of it that I don’t endorse. So performing one of the monologues at Cornell this year is an experiment for me as well.

When I was talking about the play to my fall ’13 FWS instructor, she asked me what I’d told my family about the play. I said, “Hmm … I told them it’s about women’s empowerment.” She asked, “You did not mention the name?” I shook my head and we laughed.

What’s a better way to break the news than a comprehensive blog post?

P.S.: If you’re in Ithaca on March 7th or 8th, come watch the show and find out what this play is all about!

Some Jewels of Cornell’s Endless Course Catalogue

The power to choose my classes is what most appealed to me about college in the United States. At Cornell, the selection of courses to choose from is so wide that pre-enroll can be the most confusing time of the year. Perhaps the simplest way for Cornell students to procrastinate is by browsing the Course Catalogue which contains about 4,000 courses (That’s the number from Wikipedia, but I feel there’s more).

90 pages of course listing. You get the idea.

90 pages of course listing. You get the idea.

My personal list of classes to take is not something static. It evolves along with my interests or I find more interesting classes. There are so many classes that I want to take – ranging from Expository Writing, Introduction to Evolution, Nation and Nationality in India, Introduction to Wines and Vines (that one is probably on everyone’s list) to Introduction to Art History: The Classical World in 24 objects.

Although I have only spent one complete semester at Cornell yet, I already have two classes that I recommend to almost everyone who talks to me about courses.

1) PMA 2800: Intro to Acting
Many people assume that one must already have experience to get the most out of this class. But as the course title says, this course introduces you to acting, so no experience required at all! In fact, when I took this course in Fall 2013, I had had zero theatre experience. Being open minded and engaging yourself in the class and outside alone is more than enough to enjoy the class. Last semester was an immersion into theatre for me: I watched several performances on and off campus, auditioned for a theatre group and made it (and loving it! Shout out to Ordinary People). This class added a new aspect to my life.

However, I did not take the next course in the sequence: Intro to Acting I because that probably more serious about the techniques of acting. I only intend to be an “appreciator” of theatre who occasionally takes part in it. So not only do I get to choose my courses, I also choose in what capacity I pursue them.

P.S.: I am yet to reveal the best part of Intro to Acting: No prelims or final exam! You do a final scene study instead.

2) ENGL 1167: FWS Great New Books
This recommendation is for incoming freshmen or anyone who has to take a freshman writing seminar. When I was choosing my FWS, I was told that classes in the English department tend to be tougher than those in most others. But unintentionally, I ended up with this class (it’s a long story). 

Basically, we read recent, acclaimed, fiction books, discussed them in class and wrote essays about them. One of our readings was a graphic novel titled “Fun Home”. After reading it, I get enraged when anyone refers to graphic novels as “comics”. Keep that in mind if we ever have a conversation about graphic novels.

While I enjoyed the book club style of our classes, my writing also improved greatly. This is the perfect FWS for all book lovers!

My list of classes to take and classes to recommend will keep growing and changing. When some college seniors complain about not having enough time to take all the courses they would like to, to study subjects that interest them, I can easily imagine myself in their shoes three years from now.