In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we are re-posting an article from Fulbright Foreign Student from India Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, who through the Millennial Trains Project, explored the challenges faced by South Asian immigrants in several U.S. cities. We hope that the Fulbright community is inspired by Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan’s – and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s – work in fostering positive change in their host and home communities.
I came to the United States from India over a year ago on a Fulbright Foreign Student Program grant to pursue a master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the country’s oldest public university. I was given this unique opportunity not just to study public health, but to also experience all the diversity American culture and its people have to offer.
So far, my academic experience at UNC has opened my eyes to limitless possibilities. From classroom discussions, seminars, and volunteer work, to my summer practicum at IntraHealth International, each experience has further solidified my understanding and commitment to public health. Within the field, I am specializing in maternal and child health. My research interests are in program monitoring and evaluation, strengthening existing health systems, improving water quality and sanitation, and health programs for adolescent girls. Upon my return home, I plan to work for a non-governmental organization where I can design and implement programs while enhancing government health systems.
Aside from my studies, I have participated in many multicultural potlucks with other students, celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving with American and international friends, and engaged in community health issues through a local health clinic. I feel blessed to have experienced a slice of Southern hospitality in North Carolina. My Fulbright grant has also allowed me to dispel myths surrounding Indian-Americans and South Asian immigrants in the United States.
Foreword: The musings herein were gleaned from a few days of service-learning through a special Fulbright Enrichment Activity with Amizade in the town of Williamson, WV and its surrounding area. My intuition and meager sample size have yielded this blurry, self-reflective view of what was, is and may be. Thanks for reading.
Six participants from abroad, six from the U.S. – I have come together under the banner of mutual understanding with my fellow fellows to Williamson, WV and we are growing together like a bunch of grapes. I’ve never been to a place like this. Infinite hills – friendly, drawn-out speech and demeanor – a town with its head held high – in spite of unforgiving squalls of global market forces. From far away, current residents’ forefathers arrived here, willing or not, nearly all of whom fought hard to survive. The rich seams of coal presented an obsidian opportunity, but avaricious plutocrats spared no expense to make the people’s sometimes deadly struggle for fair treatment seem Sisyphean. Eventually they prevailed, and fairer wages and better working conditions begot longer hours below with the black particulate that crackled in their chests.
I am, frankly, overwhelmed. In the first day and a half of my experience with Amizade in Appalachia, I’ve been forced to confront a swarm of questions that I don’t have answers to and are perhaps unanswerable, but our asking questions without necessarily arriving at conclusions will give shape to the rest of our week.
Today I saw a barber shop called Cuttin’ Up with Belinda. I loved that. I love Americana, and here, it’s everywhere. There are church steeples, American flags, and main streets. There aren’t very many streetlights. My mind jumps from comparison to comparison: Convenience stores selling a little of everything remind me of Bangladesh. The high school football stadium, an island of bright green in a sea of gravel on top of a mined mountain, made me think of Friday Night Lights on TV. The old pickup trucks and main streets remind me of south Georgia and country songs. Despite how different my own community is from the ones I’m getting to visit here and despite West Virginia’s reputation elsewhere in the country, my associations with small town America are almost universally positive. In fact, I have the tendency to romanticize rural communities.