What is an Indicorps Fellow?

In December 2009 I began my Indicorps’ adventure. A friend linked me to the application pages for a development experience unlike anything else out there.

I wanted to volunteer abroad. On first impressions, Indicorps’ seemed the perfect opportunity. I go to India, I can choose a project, I live in the community, and I don’t have to worry about money; I get a stipend!

In December 2009 it wasn’t about Indicorps; it was about getting what I wanted, development experience and a trip to India.

‘Hi, I’m Simon, I’m from England!’

‘What do you do here?’

‘Well, I’m an Indicorps’ Fellow!’

Unless I continue, that normally ends a conversation. It means very little to most people, and people have important things to be doing. I might add,

‘I’m here to do service.’

Service is a pretty universal term for everything, like when someone tells you they’re a consultant. Someone else will normally intervene to avoid confusion.

‘He’s a volunteer; he’s doing research; he’s on a gap year.’

An Indicorps’ Fellow will do anything to avoid being called a volunteer. Let me put this straight, we’re not volunteers. Nor are we doing research (that would be more convincing if I wasn’t writing a thesis). The gap year thing, well, it’s more like a gap decade. I’ve assured my parents I’m on the last leg.

There are plenty of reasons that I’m not a volunteer. Firstly, I don’t have a manager, no one is telling me what to do; there’s no task that I need to complete, no house to build, garden to design, money to collect, etc. Unlike volunteering, there’s no finite goal. I have a loosely structured project, and where I take it… well, that’s my choice.

Secondly, it’s an intense learning experience. Everything I do is beaten around, regurgitated, pulped and fed back to me through conversations, reflections, guilt, and the reality of my impact. Indicorps’ teaches us to question our decisions, to observe our impact, and to reflect on our mistakes. We learn to make ourselves accountable for every decision we take, and it’s tough. Indicorps’ might be based in Ahmedabad, but unlike any other distance learning course, it will hit you in the face and make you cry.

And I think that’s a crucial difference; the challenging philosophy of learning that guides our Fellowship year. Indicorps’ philosophy is not light, but using it to learn from our experiences while we work in the field is an enlightening process. And that’s as ‘finding myself’ as I get, I’m afraid.

Unlike volunteers, the Fellows have formed a pretty solid Fellowship, and we’re very close to becoming ‘Fellows for life’, joining over 100 former Indicorps’ Fellows and alumni. Much like that other famous Fellowship, we’re a bunch of misfits connected by a common cause, our passion for service. Like Gandalf and his hobbits, we’ve all had our adventures; sometimes we’re together, and other times we’re alone. We’ve faced our demons and for the most part, we’ve come out on top. And like that other Fellowship, this has been one epic adventure; across mountains and deserts, through snow and storms.

Finally, to hammer a final nail in the coffin of our volunteer doppelgangers, Indicorps’ Fellows receive a stipend. Now, it’s not much, in fact, it’s comparable to local salaries; but it’s enough to make a difference. And if my arguments above aren’t enough for you, well; a volunteer – by  definition – cannot earn money.

I was offered the Fellowship in April 2010. The selection process was harrowing, the lengthy application form gave an insight into why this program was different. The criteria, I assume, is strict. Then in August 2010, I arrived in Ahmedabad.

During Indicorps’ orientation I met Indicorps’ founder, Roopal Shah. She was intimidating; I spent those few days in her company being offended by everything she said. She was pushing me and I didn’t want to be pushed.

Roopal once compared Indicorps’ to a tripartite mix of John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King; respectively, mobilizing an untapped youth, working in communities at a grassroots level, and building a social movement for change. Delusions of grandeur aside, it’s an accurate juxtaposition of where a Fellow is supposed to be. But we’re not any of those people.

Indicorps’ Fellows have their own dreams and goals, their own ambitions. We learn quickly that we’re not here to replicate others, we’re here to blaze our own trail; when you stop trying to imitate others, you really can set the sky on fire.

Orientation quickly taught me that this year is more about me than my community. And it’s a difficult pill to swallow. When you start to learn from every decision you make, life becomes a selfish endeavour. I might spend an afternoon playing games with disabled children, but at each step I’m questioning my actions. What went wrong and how can I learn from this?

What could you achieve if you couldn’t fail? That’s how an Indicorps’ Fellow strives to think. Believe me, things go wrong more often than not, there are more setbacks than successes. I’ve injured children, offended parents, broken equipment and broken trust. But being able to face those failures honestly, allowing yourself no excuses, and learning to grow from them; it’s nothing short of empowering. When you can push yourself to keep trying in the face of adversity, you start to learn what you’re capable of. I’ll be frank; as human beings, we don’t reach a fraction of our potential.

If I sound idealistic, let me backtrack. I am no saint; I can’t face every failure with honesty, I can’t force myself into action at every injustice, I most definitely cannot solve every problem. And in the face of many mounting errors, I have spent full days locked in my room, mulling defeat and making excuses, sulking around and wasting away. I curse my time here and yearn for proper food, nice clothes, and a comfortable bed. I’ll leave wet clothes in a bucket for weeks at a time simply because I can’t drag myself to wash them; why me? Outside my door, people who don’t have that choice work from sunrise to sunset to feed their families. The guilt kicks in.

As Indicorps’ Fellows we take responsibility for our actions. It’s easy for me to blame circumstances beyond my control for my predicaments, to use excuses to excuse my failures. But it’s dishonest. In such a raw and basic environment, we have control over everything that happens to us. As Indicorps’ Fellows, we learn to exercise that control; if something doesn’t work out as we hoped, we look inside, what can we do differently?

It’s clear I’ve not yet reached nirvana.

Being an Indicorps’ Fellow has been an incredible honor. It’s been about my relationships and community, my project, my impact, and the change I’ve made. But most importantly, it’s been about me.

During orientation each Fellow was gifted with an Aloe Vera offshoot. They are near invulnerable but I struggled to take care of mine. I was distracted, busy, indifferent and lazy. But it persisted. Two months ago I began to take better care of it, and it grew, shedding parts damaged by neglect.

Last weekend I moved it into a new, larger pot. I found a tiny offshoot growing beneath it. They’re both growing in the new pot now, albeit with more space, better soil, and better guardians.

And I suppose that is what being an Indicorps’ Fellow is all about.

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