Volunteering in India: Culture, personal growth and Mahatma Gandhi


By Richard Lam

“Whenever I travel to a new place, I try to keep myself free from expectations,” said Curtis Riep (far right in the photo), reflecting on his internship in India. “And when I actually saw the people, places, and cultures that India beholds, my impressions became full, due to the capacity that I left for them.”

On an internship facilitated by AIESEC and sponsored by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Riep volunteered in Gujarat at the Research Foundation for Governance in India, a non-government organization conducting research on civil rights, proper governance, and other socio-political issues.

“It truly is Incredible India and it must be experienced, especially given the current processes of the nation from ways of traditionalism to modernism,” said Riep.

Riep is an international relations graduate from the University of Calgary and was looking for an internship in politics, governance and human rights, somewhere in the global South. He also cited the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s work on his life and his interests.

“And given the fact that the internship took place in the city of Ahmedabad, the place where Mahatma Gandhi lived and led the movement towards national independence, the decision to do research and field work on issues of political rights and justice in such a setting became a very easy and sought-after one for me.”

Getting firsthand exposure of the knowledge, ethics and natural philosophy found in the Eastern religions of India, Riep found his world perception altered.

“I have never before experienced a society so based on conceptual and spiritual understandings of life and the many meanings that such life beholds,” said Riep.

“The lessons and impact on the worldview of a person who can experience such a diversely rich culture, then, becomes difficult to describe. It must be experienced for one to understand the possibilities of perception.”

When asked whether others should consider internships in India if they are undecided, Riep simply replied with a “Why not?”

“The potential for personal growth and priceless experiences that will shape a person in who they are and who they are becoming leaves little in the way of dispute.”

As a recently-graduated student, financial realities kept Riep from realizing his ambitions for travelling the world. For this internship, Riep received a $1000 bursary, the first of five recipients to be awarded from the newly created AIESEC-Shastri Indo Canadian Institute Bursary Fund. The program gives financial support to students interested in pursuing an internship through AIESEC and in India.

Curtis is now on another internship through AIESEC, but just outside of Nairobi, in a remote village, teaching African History at Utugi Secondary School.

“Presently I am in Uganda, where I am working on an initiative to establish a schooling system in underprivileged rural communities… Afterwards, I will spend some time traveling through the Middle East.”

Though Riep finds it impossible to precise pin down the impact of the internship on his personal growth and life direction, he stated that it has sustained his passion and desire for social justice, civil rights and commitment to knowledge-building and sharing.

“There is more to India than the media and other outside sources detail, such as wide economic disparities, national economic growth, high levels of religiosity, pollution and dense population.”

“Although there is much truth to these things, one’s impression of India, once experiencing it, goes much deeper than these superficial understandings. The beauty of Indian cultures and societies leaves an impression on the human spirit, because it is a land made-up of human spirits and potentials.”

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AIESEC is the world’s largest student-run organization. In partnership with business and higher education, AIESEC has over 50 years experience in developing high-potential students into globally-minded responsible leaders. AIESEC’s innovative development process consists of providing unmatched leadership experiences and global internships to students. For more information on AIESEC in Calgary see: www.aiesec.ca/calgary

The Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute is a bi-national organization that promotes understanding between India and Canada through academic activities and exchanges. Their mandate is to improve the quality of life of the peoples of Canada and India by building and strengthening intellectual and cultural linkages through research, dialogue and exchange.