The People of Naga Valadia

Naga Valadia, a village thousands of miles across the globe in the Indian state of Gujarat, is home to a multifaceted group of people who live vastly different lives than those of us studying here at USC. They are immensely hardworking and dedicated. Most villagers do not take weekends off - children have school on Saturdays, and the men work in the fields all day, every day. Upon visiting, Project RISHI members were surprised to find that most villagers planned to fill predetermined labor and social roles, based on the jobs and statuses of their previous family members. Check out our three major takeaways:

The Warmth and Positive Energy Will Make You Feel at Home
Team India, the students who travelled to Naga Valadia this past year, all agree that the essence and heartbeat of the village, and the trip, was the intrinsic positivity that was throughout the village as they welcomed RISHI with open arms. Rahul Masson, a member of Team India, states, “The best part about visiting is seeing the high amount of positive energy that everyone emits and how they welcome strangers with such generosity.” Avi Borad relates that this personable nature and warmth from the villagers extends beyond even just our visits, explaining, “The other day Veerali and I were talking to Heeraram, one of the men in our village, and the conversation lasted for half an hour. It was very sweet because he kept telling us to call him when we get to India in the summer so that he could feed us chai, coffee, ice cream.” The relationship in and out of the village, is one that RISHI hopes to grow and continue, thanks to the wonderful memories that were made. The initiatives are always the main focus of Project RISHI’s India trips, but the community relationships are equally as important.

The Happy-Go-Lucky Children Will Light up Your Day
The children especially of NV were the highlight for most members, as they were always excited to be involved in the action that consumed RISHI. Another member of Team India, Raina, states, “The small children don’t really have a play school, so they used to just follow us around the village when we were trying to survey women for our literacy initiative. It was honestly quite a sight.” Between initiative implementation in the village, sweet memories were made amongst the villagers and Team India. One member recounts how a child of the village pretended to say his arm had glass in it from an injury a month previous to it just so he wouldn't have to go to school. Other fond memories included seeing the young girls preparing for an Independence Day dance that they had to perform in school, choreographing it themselves and being completely in sync.The girls then continued to even teach some RISHI members the steps!

The Unexpected Moments Will Be the Ones That You Cherish the Most
Teaching members how to Garba (a Gujrati dance), forming nicknames for each other, singing the new hit Bollywood song, and other activities helped all bridge the distance and cultural gap that previously was. Avi recounts another funny instance this past summer when the team tried to put up posters for our de-addiction tobacco campaign, but nothing seemed to stick, “We were quite stumped, when our driver, Natubhai, told us that we should use a flour paste. Obviously, we were pretty hesitant, but we thought we might as well try it. And it worked! The paste dried pretty quickly though, so me running around the village with it in my hands while others were trying to put the posters up was a pretty comical site. Even the elderly ladies of the village were laughing at us.” This moment reminded her and the team that even in the smallest of instances, all members need to adapt to the circumstances that are thrown at them and come up with innovative means in order to tackle issues, something that RISHI continues to do and implement as we get ready for our Summer initiative trip of 2017.

RISHI Roots

by Neha Anand and Rose Massa

The USC chapter of Project RISHI was founded just three years ago, but today it has grown to a dynamic club of over 40 members. Its purpose and vision was similar to the mission of the nine other university chapters: to promote sustainable development and growth in rural Indian communities. Founders Kunal, Dhiraj, and Akash did not necessarily foresee the club taking off with the energy and commitment it has, “I think I can speak for us three when I say what we thought would be a small side project became an integral part of our lives,” Kunal shares.

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With over 900 recognized student organizations, hundreds of which are service-based and community-focused, RISHI rose to the challenge. “We had to market ourselves and distinguish ourselves from other organizations doing really cool work, which was pretty tough,” Dhiraj acknowledges. “Establishing a critical mass of people that a) knew who we were and b) were willing to help, was a real challenge - one that we're continually reassessing and redefining,” he further explains.

The village USC RISHI works with, Naga Valadia, was chosen due to its receptive leadership and basic infrastructure. USC RISHI first visited the village in 2014, and has now traveled there three times. Current initiatives RISHI members are working on include tobacco usage and adult literacy, two solvable issues in the village. Raina, a member of team India, describes her understanding of the villagers: “In our bubbles of familiarity and comfort, we forget that they have starkly opposing lifestyles. They don't have the concept of a weekend or a vacation. Every day they do the same thing over and over again, and they can't just say that they're bored or want to quit. What that means to me is that they're stronger human beings who live a harder lifestyle, but never get the opportunity to complain.”

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Every trip to India is different as members gain a greater insight to the community, its people, and its problems. Currently, while both working on a tobacco de-addiction pilot study and a literacy campaign in the village, USC Project RISHI is still working on new ideas to implement this summer to improve village relations. VP of Initiatives Avi states, “In this future trip, we aim to mend these relations through a VRI (Village Relations Initiative). This VRI will be focused on a larger population, and aims to show that we do care about the people in the village.”

Ultimately what differentiates RISHI from other clubs at USC is the RISHI family. “I think that culture is something that is unique not only to our chapter of Project RISHI, but Project RISHI in the whole landscape of organizations at USC,” Founder Dhiraj explains. USC RISHI members form more than just a service club. True friendship is inherent in USC RISHI’s foundation, and it is definitely a leading reason RISHI has thrived so quickly at USC. Founder Akash speaks about member relationships: “You know what they like, what they don't like, where their strengths are, their weaknesses are. And then because they're your friend, and you care about them, you work to highlight their strengths and complement their weaknesses. And what develops is a trust, a friendship, and a working partnership.”

The future of USC Project RISHI is looking bright. More research, new initiatives and additional trips to Naga Valadia are definitely in store, combined with a rapidly growing RISHI family.

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Project RISHI Volunteers with Kicks for Kids

Toeing the line of philanthropy as a college student organization is always tough. As regular full-time students, it’s difficult to find the spare time to make a tangible and sustainable impact (and successfully execute missions abroad) without looking like a group of clueless voluntourists out to get their next Facebook profile with starving children. It’s even more difficult to undertake philanthropic initiatives abroad without facing the not-unfounded criticism of why we serve communities thousands of miles away while our own backyard faces homelessness, starvation, and abject poverty. At the risk of patting ourselves on the back, I can safely say that I have never been prouder of USC Project RISHI than when it commits itself to philanthropy in the Los Angeles area. By breaking out of our bubble of country-club-esque privilege and serving those in need around us, we hope to better serve our community and further Project RISHI’s legacy of serving those in need.

We partnered with our fellow charity Kicks for Kids on a cloudy Sunday morning to play soccer and recreational sports with autistic underprivileged children from South Los Angeles, and it was one of the best experiences I have ever had. Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as we high-fived them at the end of an exhausting but immensely fulfilling two hours exemplifies why we at Project RISHI are so dedicated to our work all through the year. We asked some fellow RISHI members to describe the experience in one word and explain what the experience meant to them.

USC Project RISHI continues to uphold its mission of serving those abroad as well as those in our own backyard by working with various community organizations both at USC and in Los Angeles. We not only regularly work with Kicks for Kids but also volunteer with Monday Night Mission on Skid Row (with the largest homeless population in the United States) multiple times a week, and we at USCPR hope to expand our philanthropic repertoire even more as we progress throughout the year.

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Pushing the Boundaries: RISHI’s Legacy of Social Entrepreneurship

“Social entrepreneurship” – that’s a bit of a tough pill for people to swallow, not in the least because most people don’t have the foggiest conception of what it’s supposed to be. In a start-up culture where an enormous focus is upon developing technology and all about maximizing the profit margins, it can be difficult for people to break down their bottom line in favor of being a do-gooder. But that’s what makes USC Project RISHI and its commitment to social entrepreneurship so special – we don’t measure our success based solely on how well our fundraisers do, we focus on creating the greatest social impact in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

            When I started out in Project RISHI as a greenhorn freshman, I had no clue what I was doing in college or where I was going in life. There were some nebulous dreams of being a hotshot lawyer somewhere in the distant future, or perhaps some sort of entrepreneur, but I had never wavered from a dream of being able to wake up and diving into mountains of money in a Scrooge McDuckian vault (the dream is still there, guys). College smashed my conception that business is solely about the profit margins and introduced me to the alien concept of maximizing the public good while making top dollar – a utilitarian goal in every sense of the word.

            USC Project RISHI has taken the idea of social entrepreneurship to heights I have never seen in another college organization. From my freshman year - USCPR’s very first year in operation - to now, I have seen one common goal amongst all of its members: not profit, not competition with other chapters, but a coming together of talents to create a lasting social impact amongst people who need it. We conduct extensive empirical and anecdotal research for all of our missions, asking the communities we serve what problems they want solved most and honing our efforts on these inequities to create the largest amount of change possible. Amongst the most recent additions to the RISHI family, our Research and Development team works tirelessly to find new ways to improve our research techniques, and a burgeoning videography/film division forges its way into new media to highlight the plight of our communities. USCPR is constantly innovating, bringing new talent into the fold and never wavering in its commitment and dedication to serving underprivileged communities of the Indian subcontinent. I have been consistently impressed with this organization’s ability to bring together both entrepreneurs and philanthropists alike and have them serve a common goal, and it is my hope that I (and all of my fellow members) can continue to build upon this legacy far into the future.

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Day 7: The Final Day

Validation is hardly the first objective of philanthropy, but no person can deny the incredible satisfaction one gets from pursuing a project to its end. USC Project RISHI has given me not only real world experience that I would have never received in a standard college curriculum, but it also allowed me to connect with people around the world who expanded my worldview and truly changed the way I think about healthcare.

We wrapped up our hard work with both the literacy and tobacco initiatives, and we were tremendously pleased with our results. That is not to say our success came easily. From the fifty individuals that we had interviewed before for our anti-addiction pilot study, we finalized the selection of our sample. Sadly, many of the men (who were our primary target for our tobacco initiative) worked incessantly throughout the day and were only free late at night, severely limiting the amount of data we would be able to extrapolate from their experiences. This proved to be a rather large struggle for our research division, yet we ended up finding two more individuals who were quite excited to participate. We distributed our anti-tobacco products to a test sample of ten individuals by the end of the day, separating into different groups that used primarily Teaza (a tea-based alternative), Grinds (a coffee-based alternative), or nicotine gum. Such division, we projected, would afford us the opportunity to determine which alternative would prove most effective in solving tobacco addiction – and once such a solution was isolated, we could begin to ship in bulk. We provided these alternatives to Gita, a shopkeeper referred to us by the village elder, who would keep track of their progress and relay the data to us. As such, we gave these individuals the convenience to go to the same shop that they bought tobacco from, but instead would voluntarily be given the alternatives. We put up numerous educational posters throughout the village and continued our multimedia presentations, with the villagers displaying extremely positive reception.

Our literacy campaign unfortunately hit a few unforeseen snags, largely due to the fact that the villagers were primarily out working in the fields due to rain patterns (or were participating in seasonal religious activities). While this created some logistical issues to be sure, we were able to pull off our first literacy class for women without a hitch, and although we were dismayed that we could not continue our work personally, our village liaisons assured us that they would utilize our curriculum to the fullest and attempt to expand the educational mission into a fully-grown initiative all their own.

As of right now, we are exhausted but proud. As we get ready to head back to Mumbai, I remembered all of the amazing memories we had, especially the village children who conversed with us (and greatly entertained us) every single day. I had always known that I would enjoy this trip, but I never expected the people of this village to be so welcoming and kind. We haven’t even left yet, but I’m already ready to come back.

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Day 6: First Class and Multimedia Campaign

All the planning in the world will always come to naught if hard work doesn’t follow. Our latest day in the village of Naga Valadia was without a doubt our hardest and most arduous day yet, yet I would say that beyond anything else, this single day has validated the effort the team has put in over the past year.

Today’s agenda encompassed the keystone events for both of our initiatives, with our team kept constantly on their feet (from waking at dawn to our analysis meeting far past midnight). Our literacy initiative required a large degree of preparation, but we conducted our first class (based upon our own self-devised curriculum) and pulled it off with great aplomb. The turnout for the first class was surprisingly large even by our projections, made even more impressive by the fact that we had to rework our schedule around the lives of the villagers (a vital consideration, as the mission would be of little purpose if nobody attended the school). It was a delicate balance, striving to keep adults challenged but having a good time, in the organized chaos of a classroom – and yet we managed to improvise our way to success. Setting up the classroom, readying our materials, and delivering a full-fledged lesson gave us an incredible hands-on experience in academia and left many of the villagers (particularly the women) excited for the future classes we had planned.

We also spent a large amount of time determining the exact villagers who would feature in our addiction pilot study, and we narrowed down our sample into two key categories: participants and distributors. The sarpanch, or village leader, was highly enthusiastic about our anti-tobacco campaign and delivered a riveting PSA about the ill effects of tobacco to the villagers. In addition, she recommended a young shopkeeper girl to us as an excellent distributor for our study, also advising us to take into account the willingness of the shopkeepers to distribute our anti-tobacco products as well as the names of whoever was willing to join in our mission. It was truly inspiring to see the entire community come together in the common cause of eradicating tobacco addiction.

In addition to our research, we held a mass education day for the women of the village, showing videos on smoking and having a nurse from the local Tolani Hospital give them advice on making informed decisions regarding addiction in their families. The purpose of our multimedia campaign was to educate the villagers on the detrimental social and familial effects of tobacco usage, and with the added consultation of local contacts at the Tolani Hospital and the Hari Om Trust Hospital, the villagers were incredibly receptive to our information.

Yet our campaigns don’t end with a few simple capstone events. The curriculum (following test cases) will develop into a full-fledged partnership and scholarship program handled by the village contacts as well as the local University, and we plan to provide free anti-tobacco alternatives (contributed by companies in the United States to our cause) as a gesture of goodwill to kick-start our campaign against oral cancer. We were amazed at not only the reception we received, but also at how corporations and medical organizations alike came together with us with the common goal of achieving philanthropic change around the globe. We truly gained perspective on what we learn from our initiatives, how to learn and adapt from our previous mistakes, and above all, the importance of ensuring that one’s charity remains 

Day 5: A Valuable Learning Experience

Project RISHI is nothing if not an adaptable organization. We spend countless hours each week working to bring our initiatives to fruition, yet there is absolutely no doubt that theory rarely translates perfectly into reality – we are constantly changing and reforming our fluid projects in tandem with new information we receive, all so we may better aid the people we serve.

Following a quick breakfast and debriefing, we immediately set to work with the aim of continuing our anti-tobacco initiative and beginning our literacy drive in earnest. Yet at such a crucial stage in our mission, we found more than a few kinks in our well-devised projects. In an interview with yet another of our valued liaisons, Dr. Swim Parmar from the local Tolani Eye Hospital, we were advised to focus not upon the increasingly aging majority of the village, but upon the “second generation” - people aged twenty-five to fifty, primarily because they were not yet chronic users of chewing tobacco/snuff and were more likely to understand the implications of their habits upon their children (as well as to take remedial action). Dr. Parmar had been our first health-care initiative partner for our keystone project (the optical health camps) a year ago, subsidizing our camps for the local rural population and providing us with both expertise as well as materiel, and we trusted his judgment. As such, we were forced to duly revise our initiative, with our new mission for our pilot study to focus on this particular demographic to ensure the cessation of tobacco usage in not only this current generation but also for all of posterity.

Our research division began to conduct surveys in the hopes of setting a foundation for our planned future initiative of constructing a permanent health clinic in the tri-village area, and we found yet another great surprise. We were greatly startled to find many of the villagers well informed about prevalent health issues in the area, but simply unable to access the necessary healthcare once they became sick or injured.

Yet another portion of our morning was spent at the Mata Lachmi Rotary Institute for Deaf and Dumb Children, a school focusing on innovative technology-infused education for children unable to hear or speak. While only tangentially related to our current initiatives, it is of paramount importance that USC Project RISHI support our philanthropic partners in Gujarat, furthering not only their causes but also gaining valuable information from their experiences in order to better guide our own initiatives. We not only went to celebrate the Institute’s Foundation Day, but also got to interact with local children who had learned various skills (including fireless cooking) under the Institute’s care.

In keeping with our aim of beautifying the village, we painted two murals to bond with the children: one of a heart with kids’ fingerprints, and one of the Hindu god of luck and intelligence Ganesh (not only a gesture of goodwill in the village, but also a guard against people spitting tobacco juice in public).

Our day was not without its unexpected pitfalls and twists of luck, yet it was truly a valuable learning experience. After all, flexibility is one of the most valuable tools in Project RISHI’s arsenal, for without it, we would not be able to create the sustainable philanthropic change that we so pride ourselves upon.

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Day 4: Furthering the Impact

RISHI is defined by its engagement with the communities it serves – we are not simply a philanthropy that creates its own agenda and fosters self-gratifying delusions of “charity.” We are a grassroots organization devoted to sustainable and permanent change, and that is made effective primarily with the help of the RISHI liaisons that keep our presence felt in the village throughout the year.

Upon initial preparations for the second stages of our initiative, we talked with Dr. Kanchandani, one of our most valuable liaisons. First and foremost, we talked extensively about how the villagers’ thought processes were shaped by socioeconomics, and how someone within the village (say, a charitable organization like RISHI) would most effectively communicate to said villagers. The doctor broke down the two most effective routes we could take in pitching our missions: the religious and the medical. We could easily reach out to local priests to inform the villagers how chewing tobacco was contrary to religious discipline, or we could have a medical authority (in this case, a woman who worked as a social worker assigned to the village) talk to the people in person. We immediately decided the latter route was undoubtedly more effective, as she would know the demographics of the village far better than we and thus receive far greater recognition from her patients (whereas we were well-liked but not as widely-recognized).

We next set up a logistics meeting with Leela Bhen, another hugely influential contact in our work. Under her supervision, we revised and set out our finalized gameplans for both the literacy and the tobacco initiatives. A literacy class would be held tomorrow, with an experimental video session the day after. We found enormous difficulties in scheduling classes for men, due to logistical constraints and somewhat low demand. In response, our “anti-tobacco pledge” campaign was altered significantly to compensate for such logistical concerns. We would utilize a greater deal of the informational tobacco education day to address the large village trend of women using bhajar (snuff) without being aware of the tobacco in the product. Our campaign primarily focused upon informing the women of the affects of second-hand smoking (which would hopefully trickle down to the men), the economic repercussions following health concerns related to tobacco, and providing non-tobacco alternatives. Our tobacco pilot study, which would begin on Saturday with men who chew tobacco, was also altered to provide the non-tobacco alternatives we had been working towards procuring and having men (who had already quit their addiction) hold counsels as to the reasons and efficacy of their actions.

We further continued filming around the village for our media division, exploring everywhere from the local lake to the village temple and documenting daily patterns of life in the village. Perhaps most importantly for our research, we continued scouting out villagers for our tobacco survey data bank but increasingly ran across the same people – after hours of arduous trekking and lengthy interviews, we decided who we wanted to include in our pilot tobacco study.

This week has been an incredible experience, not in the least because our field work differs so greatly from the static environment of the college classroom. Without a doubt, this is one of the best experiences college has offered us so far, and we hope to learn even more from our grassroots work about applying our theoretical knowledge to the real world.

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Day 3: Kicking off the Anti-Tobacco Initiative

Every day is an eventful day in Naga Valadia. We can plan as much as we want beforehand, but we will inevitably have to change our plans when we actually reach our destination and put our plans into action. But that’s precisely what I like so much about Project RISHI – the feeling of conducting your very own grassroots movement and bringing it to fruition is a feeling of satisfaction like none other.

We started the morning off by visiting the local elementary school to give a tobacco awareness presentation to the students, the first step in our anti-cancer intervention initiative. While we had originally planned to do smaller presentations with each grade level, it became immediately clear when we arrived at the school that it would be difficult to move our entire set-up from classroom to classroom. Quickly adapting to the situation, we set up our presentations in a single room and gathered as many kids as possible to give two presentations: one for the elementary school students and one for the middle school kids. It was overwhelmingly obvious that the children truly enjoyed both of the presentations, and it was clear that we had made some impact on their perspectives towards tobacco. The beginning of our mission seemed to be a promising one.

Meanwhile, we continued to film various parts of the village in accordance with our media division. We spent some time filming the layout of the village, but we devoted much more time recording the interviews of villagers we were surveying. We partnered with college students from the local Tolani College (who were conveniently fluent in Gujarati) to assist us with the interviews. Their knowledge of both colloquialisms and slang was exceptionally useful, and it lent a depth to our interviews that we would not have otherwise had.

There were several immediate insights we gained from interviewing the villagers, the most important being that many of the villagers actively and frequently used tobacco as a stimulant (almost as a veritable substitute to an energy drink). They knew full well that tobacco had negative repercussions for their health, but they also wholeheartedly believed that the ability to keep working until sunset (thereby earning more money for their families) was far more important than the prospective loss of health. Our role in the village became that much more urgent - to help these villagers find alternative ways to stay stimulated without the harmful effects of tobacco.

The kids remained very fond of us, even pleading with us to join them during their school recess. We spent time bonding with the children, even getting to know some of them by name. A young boy named Tushar stuck out to the entire team, as he could speak Hindi as well as Gujarati (an impressive feat at such a young age), simultaneously making it easier for us to communicate with him. He even stuck around the operations camp and helped clean up the surveys while the RISHI team conducted interviews. Several young girls of the village also showed us a dance set they were preparing for the village’s Independence Day celebration, a truly spectacular performance.

The day was long and inevitably arduous, but we felt that the reward was well worth it. We received a treasure trove of data through which we could sift and refine our initiatives (both present and future), we kicked off our anti-tobacco initiative in admirable fashion, and we managed to bond even further with the villagers of Naga Valadia. Needless to say, our hopes and expectations for the days to come remain higher than ever. It is a truly satisfying feeling when we can see our hard work unfolding before our eyes, and even more so when we observe our projects truly making a difference.

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Day 2: Starting in the Village

I had high hopes for our second day in the village, and all I can say is that this trip has surpassed every expectation I held over the course of this summer. All of the hard work and our perpetual grind for the sake of philanthropy has finally begun to pay off, and I couldn’t be more proud of this organization.

We started the day off quite early due to jet lag and continued to refine our initiatives game plan, preparing and re-preparing all of our research and mission materiel for our entrance into the village of Naga Valadia. Our research surveys took the utmost priority, as it was imperative that we finished them in order to effectively conduct the pilot study for the efficacy of our literacy initiative. It took more than a few hours to finalize all the paperwork (in particular, translating the surveys into both Gujarati and Hindi) and to debrief every single member of the mission squad on procedural policy, but we were immensely satisfied with the results.

Following a quick breakfast filled with Indian staples native to the region (puris, paranthas, and masala omelettes), we finished our preparations and went on our way to touch base in the village. We arrived shortly before noon and immediately began our research, splitting into three autonomous teams with at least one Gujarati speaker in each.  To be honest, I had faced the prospect of meeting the villagers with a slight amount of trepidation, as it was my first trip to the operational home field and we had no idea how we would be received.

In all honesty, I needn’t have worried at all. The villagers were incredibly cordial, and due to our constant presence maintained in the village via our RISHI liaisons, many of them remembered both us and our work from the last two initiative trips. Indeed, upon conducting a few hours or rudimentary research, we found that many of the villagers (elderly though they were) were highly interested in becoming literate – an incredibly fortuitous start to our mission. We duly selected a few for our pilot study and proceeded to establish the groundwork for both our tobacco and our literacy projects.

Yet the best part of our day was seeing the sheer excitement on the faces of the children who thronged around us, so impressed were they with our presence and the entrance of foreigners into the village. In fact, we were compelled to distract them so as to be continue unobstructed with our work!

This first day in the village has been eye-opening, to say the least. To see the foundation laid for our grassroots projects is a satisfying feeling that cannot be replicated, and I look forward (more than ever) to the work we have cut out for us in the days ahead.

Day 1: The Journey

Rahul Masson and Raina Singh: RISHI Trip Day 1 Experiences

What’s a RISHI adventure without a few adventures along the way?

These past few months have been absolutely hectic and absolutely amazing. We’ve all had our fair share of tough times, but working together on projects that could impact thousands of lives really bonded us together as a group. It’s no joke that misery loves company, but we powered through months of intensive planning and coordinated effort to successfully make our way to the airport without incident. From there on, let’s just say it’s been more than a bit wild.

The past forty-eight hours have been a true rollercoaster of emotions, and it both excites and scares us that this is just a taste of what is to come. With seven American college kids spending little more than a week in a foreign country, we didn’t anticipate anything extraordinarily difficult (our last slices of pizza at the Los Angeles airport were a decidedly good start to our initiative). The same can hardly be said of a one-and-a-half hour delayed flight to Dubai, in which we barely made it to our next flight from the layover. After barely cooling down in the hectic hours on the flight (wherein we alternated between bonding and serious discussion of our initiative game plan), we managed to find ourselves in Mumbai.

Needless to say, our woes were far from over. We found ourselves stuck at the airport for over four precious hours, desperately scrambling for one bag of vital supplies lost in transport in transport (we desperately prayed it had not been left in Dubai). After a mercifully quick resolution and a lunch, we trudged through the seasonably muggy weather to the bustling train station (Bandra Terminus) after a considerable amount of bumps and twists on the streets of Mumbai.

Our train seats were decidedly separated from one another, so we haggled with quite a few people and managed to procure the seats we wanted. It truly was an incredible experience for something as mundane as a train ride – all the quintessential sounds, sights, and smells of India seemed to come together (even at the train station, with the chai and idli peddlers raising a clamor amongst veritable bookstores laid out upon rugs. Upon arriving in our operational home base in Gujarat, we ate theplas, bhaji, shak, and chaas in true Gujarati fashion, taking a breather to bond and immerse ourselves in our surroundings.  After fifteen arduous hours we finally stopped in the small city of Gandhidham and unloaded our (mercifully still seventeen) bags, welcomed by a slight drizzle and a surprising amount of attention from the locals, who had heard about our initiative. Three successive car trips to the local hotel later, we had all of our initiative members and supplies respectively assembled and accounted for.

With our initial journey done, we all look forward to the real challenges ahead – running both of our charitable missions and conducting the research that informs our future projects. Yet it’s been an exhilarating start to our initiative, and although this trip has been a rollercoaster, we are more than eager to see what this ride has to offer.

 

Jet Set!

With our second major initiative trip almost underway, USC Project RISHI has been working around the clock to ensure our operations in Naga Valadia are efficient, effective, and above all, designed to create the greatest possible change in our village. The expansion of our philanthropic aid lies wholly in our ability to conduct thorough research and charitable missions abroad, and every member of our organization has been more than happy to lend their spare time making our initiative a success - all while working around full time jobs and prestigious research internships.

I won’t lie, it’s been exhausting, and at times incredibly frustrating. The path to success is paved not just with good intentions, but with people who can deliver and do the damn job. I am proud to say that Project RISHI has proven itself an incredible organization, showing a cohesion and dedication far beyond what I expected of regular college students, and it is with this in mind that I asked more RISHI leaders about their hopes for the summer 2016 mission:

Me: Not to indulge in self-promotion overmuch, but we’ve done a LOT of work this summer. Could you crystallize it for anyone unfamiliar with our operation?

Kunal Varshneya (President 2014-2016):

I’ve been President of USC Project RISHI for the past two years, and I couldn’t be more proud of this squad. Our first initiative was no walk in the park – conducting eye health camps for hundreds and providing educational materials for impoverished kids doesn’t happen overnight. Our two initiatives this summer are even more in-depth and provide a good basis for our future operations in India. We’re implementing an anti-tobacco educational campaign to raise awareness amongst both adults and children, as well as providing mass amounts of tobacco-free alternatives (to chewing quids) to cut down oral cancer rates. Furthermore, we’ll be kick-starting a massive literacy initiative in a partnership with the local university to increase the staggeringly low literacy rates in Naga Valadia.

Me: …..That’s quite a mouthful. Could you break down both initiatives so it’s a bit easier to digest?

Raina Nilibar:

 For tobacco, we’re doing a combination of community outreach, education, and material prevention – we’re using an educational campaign to focus on the schoolchildren and to create seminars for adults who know little about the dangers of tobacco addiction, all while providing the local nurse with affordable non-tobacco alternatives to distribute to the local population.

Varun Vasudev:

For our literacy campaign, we’ve partnered with the Rotary Club of India as well as the local University of Adipur for our aim of drastically raising literacy rates in Naga Valadia. We’ve developed and written our own curriculum, which consists of worbooks as well as tests and videos (all specially tailored to suit the needs and occupations of the villagers) so as to educate them to a level of verbal and written competency as defined by the Indian national standards. Everything we have written is developed and filmed from scratch, all with the end goal in mind of helping the villagers make better lives for themselves with their new knowledge.

Me: Are we sure that we’re serving our villagers’ best needs by with these campaigns?

Kunal Varshneya:

Absolutely. RISHI’s modus operandi has always been sustainable change – going in and providing reforms that can’t be kept running in our absence is a waste of both resources and time. We have conducted extensive research over our past two trips to Naga Valadia, surveying many of the villagers and studying the area, and found that the villagers really found both oral cancer and illiteracy to be extremely prevalent issues that they wanted addressed.

Me: But surely many other organizations could say that they’re doing the same thing? What makes USC Project RISHI any different from the others?

Raina Nilibar:

The difference is, we’re not governed by outside influences. We create all our projects from scratch, fund them ourselves, and conduct research so we can expand our initiatives – it’s run fully by college students to expose them to realities they don’t get to see at a privileged college like USC.

Me: But what is it that really makes our missions any different from any other charity delivering aid?

Varun Vasudev:

Look, the difference is that we’re a grassroots organization asking the community WHAT they want addressed – and then we address that specific need. We take a scientific approach to charity and apply that rigor to the research we conduct there as well, all to make sure that we aren’t going in there blind to the needs of the people we serve. We don’t just deliver aid, we work WITH the community to establish real change that can be sustained even after we leave – it’s quite a bit different than dropping a few packages of food and leaving with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Me: What do you look forward to most from this trip?

Kunal Varshneya:

Honestly, just seeing the organization grow over the past two years has been the best feeling, and it’s seeing the village change in a similar fashion that really validates the hard work we put in. Seeing the villagers being genuinely grateful that we come in as helpers, not as “saviors,” is really what RISHI is all about – creating a community. It’ll be fantastic helping out with our community contacts, running the programs, even conducting research – it all benefits both our organization and the people we serve, and that’s what matters.

 

Updates will be regularly posted on our weekly blog! Follow our team’s success and the village’s road to recovery on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Buzzfeed. USC Project RISHI is an organization dedicated to sustainable change and meaningful philanthropy across India, eradicating inequality and poverty one village at a time.

Financing an Initiative

With all the great work and ideas that come from the people in USC Project RISHI, it would be a shame if all their hard work would go to waste as a result of being unable to provide the supplies or resources. Paying for an initiative relies heavily on fundraising during the year, but there is additional work that goes into making our vision a reality.

Our first major avenue is looking into the wide array of companies that already have a product or interest in helping solve a problem similar or the same as ours. With regards to our pilot tobacco de-addiction initiative, we focused on companies like Grindz and TeaZa Energy,  who were willing to donate product to help combat this problem overseas.

The other aspect of fundraising is significantly more hands-on. With the large Indian community in Artesia, there was a great resource in our backyard of people who would be willing to donate and help make a difference in their home country. The added benefit of interacting with each one of these stores was that we were able to increase our presence in terms of the amount of people that knew about Project RISHI as an organization and the type of work we do. Since these were all small businesses, we were able to go door to door and get an immediate response to our cause and it was overall a very positive experience!

Countdown to India: Introduction

USC Project RISHI has been my home for the past couple years, and I can honestly say that we are as much a family as we are an organization. We live together, mentor one another, and help each other grow in our personal and professional spheres. We are brought together by our love for creating change, our interest in conducting philanthropic research, and in uniting students of all walks of life for one common goal: the betterment of life for the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

Our operations in the village of Naga Valadia, Gujarat, have completely changed my perspective on health care, social work, and the seamless integration of socioeconomics with sustainable philanthropy. Within the first year of operations, the organization held multiple eye health camps serving hundreds of villagers unable to afford proper care, provided literacy materials to impoverished schoolchildren, and beautified the village with murals. As the team continues its preparation for two more landmark initiatives (an educational and medical campaign against tobacco addiction in the local tri-village area to reduce oral cancer rates, as well as an integrated curriculum with the local Indian Rotary branch to improve local literacy), I asked two of the top USCPR representatives, my fellow co-workers, for a few comments.

MT: Why are you two excited about going to India/what made you commit to going to India? What do you personally hope to gain from it?)

Dhiraj Pangal

So, this will be my third India trip with Project RISHI. Each time we go, the organization’s mission and its methodology seem to get stronger. As we continue to develop relationships with locals in Gujarat, our NGO contacts, village leaders, all that jazz, trips have an opportunity to become more and more impactful. Adipur is starting to feel like a home away from home, funny enough…I have a lot of good memories of that city for only a few weeks spent there. It’s enormously rewarding helping people, but it’s just a fantastic feeling when you plan the work yourself. It’s a fantastic experience.

Avi Borad

My name is Avi Borad, and I am part of Team India. I have been a part of Project Rishi for about two years now and have been involved with planning our past initiatives. This year, I finally have the opportunity to go to India and interact with the villagers that I have heard so much about. I have to say, I am pretty excited! Summer for me has consisted of overseeing the completion of our initiatives whether it be filming for our adult literacy campaign or coming up with ideas for our tobacco awareness campaign. What seemed to be just a few fleeting ideas several months ago is finally coming together to form the two initiatives that we will be implementing in India in T-11 days.

MT: Could you describe the initiatives on the docket for this summer’s trip?

Avi Borad: I have grown up speaking Gujarati (the language spoken in our village, Naga Valadia); however, being able to use what seemed to be an ordinary skill to help establish our literacy curriculum and film videos has been an eye-opening experience. I am sure all of you are thinking: How are you going to teach villagers how to read and write Gujarati if you are only going to be in the village for a week? Well, that is the great thing about the initiative that we are planning. It is sustainable. Over the course of the past few months, we have established the infrastructure for a Gujarati education program for the adults of the village, a majority of whom are unable to read and write. This program combines a traditional classroom setting with an e-learning curriculum. Our planning for the traditional classroom has mainly consisted of us establishing that curriculum and creating weekly scripts for our volunteers in India. For the e-learning aspect of our class, we have been filming videos that will serve as a review for the in class portion of the program. It is amazing to think that with our literacy initiative we could achieve full adult literacy by 2019.

I have also had the opportunity to help with our tobacco awareness campaign. One of my favorite parts about Project Rishi is the ability for you to mold your ideas into an initiative.   What was just a document full of pictures and words turned into purposeful and informative posters and pamphlets. The difficulty that arose in the creation of these informational media was being able to convey the message that tobacco is bad for your health without the use of words due to the fact that a majority of the adults are illiterate. However, we were able to overcome this challenge with the use of various multimedia to supplement our project.

MT: Are you worried about anything with T-11 days to go?

Avi Borad: We are still working tirelessly on getting the finishing touches on our literacy projects. We have a few more videos that need to be taken care of, as well as some worksheets. Luckily we have a team working pretty much around the clock (we get some help with time differences) and we’ll be ready to go by the time we leave. It’s always a grind with the huge amounts of work, but we can manage.

MT: So it’s been a little rough getting things off the ground?

Avi Borad: Any philanthropic work isn’t a cakewalk, you always run into difficulties now and then. But that’s what makes it all worth it. I have an amazing team working with me, and we’ve overcome a lot to make this initiative a success. It doesn’t matter how much work it is, it’s always absolutely worth the effort if we make a difference, yeah? I am eager to see how the villagers respond to both of these initiatives. It is naive to think that everything will go off without a hitch; however, our week in the village and contact with the heads of the village will provide us the opportunity to tweak our initiatives based on the villagers needs.  

MT: How has your past work prepared you for this year’s initiative?

Dhiraj Pangal: So a little background; my former role in USCPR was as the head of our initiatives wing. Initiatives is where I really grew as a PR member. A lot of that work was actually making the products of our past two initiatives. That being said, the ambitions we have for this trip exceed anything I did by miles. Now, I get to kind of be a part of all aspects of the initiative. At the end of the day, I need to make sure our team plans accordingly (and has planned accordingly) to get our vision from a dream to a reality. If anyone remembers, at the beginning of the semester, we had like four teams working on different initiatives. THESE ARE THOSE INITIATIVES!...Oh, guess I didn’t really answer the question. Look, point is, the literacy initiative’s main goal is to provide a complete classroom experience to have students (adults) pass a basic literacy exam administration. I think we do a real good job with that.

MT: What is one thing you hope the villagers gain from the initiative you have been working hard on for the past year?

Avi Borad: I hope they start really enjoying seeing us, and taking an active role in their own village improvement. We can’t do much if we don’t empower the villagers, but if we empower the villagers there really isn’t much we can’t do. 

 

Updates will be regularly posted on our weekly blog! Follow our team’s success and the village’s road to recovery on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Buzzfeed. USC Project RISHI is an organization dedicated to sustainable change and meaningful philanthropy across India, eradicating inequality and poverty one village at a time.