Alumni Spotlight: Minnie Cullen-Close


I am a 19 year old student from London, at Durham University!

Minnie is a Durham University student studying English Literature, with an interest in development and a passionate feminist! As an intern at HEEALS, Minnie managed to combine both of her passions!

Why did you pick this program?

I chose this program for many reasons. The main reason was that the charity was very small, and they run their internship project independently of any agencies. From this, I knew that I would be completely immersed in the culture, living with local people, and also was reassured that all the money from the project fees went towards the charity's programs.

Being a small NGO, it's so crucial that HEEALS gets a sufficient number of interns as it is one of the main ways they fund their work! It was a project where I felt I could really make an impact, and also have an amazing experience learning about a new culture.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

HEEALS helped me throughout the process of preparing to come to Gurgaon, where they are based, near Delhi. I was able to have a Skype session with the managing director, had specific vaccinations recommended to me, was given lots of information about the work that they do and what I'd be doing specifically, and was also helped in applying for my visa! That was especially useful, as there are loads of different types of Indian visas and forms you have to fill out!

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

One piece of advice I would give to someone about going on my program is to be as open-minded as you can, and open to as many new experiences as possible! Having been a bit of a cautious traveler, I tend to ignore people who try and approach me - maybe that's just because I'm from London, and not used to anyone talking to one another! However, here in India, I have gradually grown to open up to people!

On a short break to Varanasi on my days off, I ended up being taught to meditate and drinking chai with a Sadhu Baba, in a cow shed next to the Manikarnika ghat. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

On the weekdays we work in the offices of HEEALS, and can do a range of activities. At HEEALS, they need as much support as they can get in an array of fields, so you are able to help in any way you want really! The intern I was with helped to make a documentary film on child marriage, while I was more focused on the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program, helping to deliver that in schools.

I've also been emailing various organizations regarding fundraising, editing and helping to develop new program proposals and writing articles about the marginalized communities the charity works with, like the Dalit people. As well as this, I've helped to create a questionnaire about children's attitudes towards education and also taught a few English lessons! There's a lot you can do, and all of the work helps the charity to increase the effectiveness of their programs, and their reach!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear about my time abroad, was probably my safety, especially having heard a lot of horror stories about lone female travelers in India. However, once I arrived, this fear was completely alleviated!

Having spoken to the HEEALS team, they were very aware of the potential risks and gave me many tips on how to stay safe, such as not going out beyond a certain time and wherever possible, making sure I was with someone.

As long as you have your wits about you and rely on your common sense, I've realized, there's not a lot to be worried about! There are female only carriages on the metro, and in stations there are always police officers willing to direct you to the local pre-paid taxi booth!

What would you say to people who are critical of the idea of 'voluntourism'- the idea that people go to countries to travel and also volunteer, and that it's harmful because of the temporary nature of their work?

Whilst out in India, I stumbled across an article about 'voluntourism' and it's negative impacts on local communities, the premise behind this criticism being that people 'drop' in, do some volunteering and then leave. At the time when I initially read it, I had a sudden pang of guilt. Was this me? Was I actually harming the people I'd come to help, by only being here for 6 weeks?

Admittedly, the only plans I had to travel were on the weekends, so I didn't immediately label myself a 'voluntourist', but still had a fear that I was only having a short term impact and would leave not having made a sustainable impact. However, reflecting on this a few days later, I realized that this wasn't the case. I hadn't come to India to help build toilets, which inevitably I would be terrible at, but instead I was working directly with a charity to plan future projects, and help them develop their ideas and work.

Every email I sent to an organization about fundraising was making a long-term difference, and the templates can also be recycled in the future , and every idea I had about how to engage struggling children in the government school (where there was no electricity or water) can also be tried when the HEEALS team visit the school, once I'm home.

My advice, then, would be not to worry! And to endeavor to help the organization you work for, the local people that you will meet, in the best way that you can. Toilet building is not for everyone!