Summer Service Grant | Teaching in West Bengal

As an aspiring physician with an interest in health disparities, Mariely Garcia (Bowdoin ’17) cares deeply about making quality healthcare services and knowledge available to all people. This summer, Mariely received a Summer Service Grant from QuestBridge to work with a grassroots organization in the small Indian town of Gorubathan to put her passions into practice.

mariely-garcia4When I said the final goodbye to my mother before heading to the airport, I will admit that I started to panic. It was the kind of panic that sent my heart into total pandemonium, made me exceptionally fidgety, and brought a million doubts to mind. Sitting in the taxi, watching the familiar New York City skyline zoom past in the distance brought me to the realization that the next time I was on land, I would be on the other side of the world.

Throughout the summer I worked with an organization called The Himalayan Media Welfare Society in Gorubathan, West Bengal. I did a lot of different things, but I spent most of my time teaching Math and English at a daycare and leading workshops on mental health and women’s empowerment. Assuming the role of a teacher was really rewarding because I got to know a lot of the kids in the town really well. They were always willing to take me by the hand and teach me about all the great things Gorubathan had to offer. They helped bring me back to the joys of playing games like hide-and-seek, pushed me to try new things, and challenged me to check my privilege and re-evaluate my assumptions almost every single day.

I often wondered how much good I was actually doing, especially since my arrival, for reasons I still do not understand, often meant that the teachers would leave. I wondered why I was leading presentations even though the translators were equally, if not more, knowledgeable about the content than I was. I wondered, especially, how the organization ran when volunteers were not there, since we were doing a significant amount of the operational work. However, even though I was very critical about my presence, there were many moments that made me feel like the work I was doing was having a meaningful impact. Some kids didn’t go to school, and collecting the homework we made up for them each day helped me recognize the value of our jobs. Watching the kids’ eyes light up when they solved a long division problem correctly or when they picked up a new book was really special. Having the opportunity to connect, on everything from a mispronunciation of a word, to a picture, to a new game, or a life story, made me feel deeply connected to the kids in a way that I can only hope affected them as profoundly as it affected me.

Living in India was a whirlwind. It was intoxicatingly beautiful, obnoxiously loud, and absolutely full of life. It felt like I was a world away from home in a way that was eye-opening and awe-inspiring, but at times also really hard. Living in the mountains with my host-family made me hyperaware of how small I am, how limited my own perspective is, and how much bigger than my own experience the world is. If I had to describe all the things I have learned in one word, it would be “perspective.” America is not the world, and our ways, traditions, and views are far from universal. My understanding of “normal” was challenged at every corner and my conceptual map of “reality” was exponentially expanded.

Coming back to the U.S. and Bowdoin has been just as difficult as leaving because I think twice about everything I do. I definitely appreciate the things and opportunities I have in ways that I didn’t before, and I ask infinitely more questions about some of the things I have always considered “normal.” India made me more aware, inspired, critical, and passionate, and it has left me with stories, memories, and moments that have an indefinite and undeniable impact on my ideas about what it means to be a citizen of the world at large.

I am eternally grateful to QuestBridge for helping make this opportunity a possibility. I grew and changed in ways that I was not expecting, explored things I never would have otherwise, and learned how to breathe more deeply and laugh more freely. The connections I made, relationships I built, and moments of reflection remain with me every day, and words do not capture how beautiful and important this experience was for me.