Alumni Spotlight: Justine Dowden

I arrived in India in November 2011 and will depart in September 2012. I am from Sacramento, California, am 23 years old, and studied sociology, French and art history at Brandeis University.

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with AJWS in India?

Justine: I saw the World Partners Fellowship as a learning opportunity. I applied because I have a thirst for a better understanding of the ground reality of Indian gender and development issues, how NGOs in the developing world function, and my personal ability to make a positive impact. My most valuable learning experiences have mostly been abroad, as I had previously lived in Geneva for one year working for the UN, volunteered with HIV/AIDS patients in Tanzania, taught English and science in India and lived in Amsterdam interning for an NGO so I wanted to continue working internationally.

I saw the World Partners Fellowship as a way to harness my motivation to participate in sustainable change into focused action by directly learning about local methods and traditions for development. I grow by challenging myself and I thought that I would leave India with an understanding of the successes and limitations of development issues that I could share with my community in America.

Volunteering in India with AJWS

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Justine: It is important to realize that the World Partners Fellowship does not involve handing out food to villagers or playing soccer with slum children. You will not come away with a Facebook profile picture of yourself holding a cute brown baby. This Fellowship will have you working behind the scenes, and thus behind a desk, on development issues such as maternal health, migrants’ rights, HIV/AIDS prevention among injection drug users, sustainable construction, cultural preservation and eco-tourism.

My day-to-day life is hardly glamorous and in some ways resembles the lives of my friends who have internships in DC or New York in that I write reports or edit content for my NGO’s website, do some grocery shopping after work and then read or watch TV until bed time. But every day I am learning new things that I wouldn’t ever be able to pick up in an American NGO. Going grocery shopping is a mundane task, but it’s more stimulating when I have to avoid stampeding goats in the market. Casual small talk with coworkers is a daily facet of my life but I find humor in it because sometimes when I say things like “I hope it doesn’t rain,” I get a response like, “Yes, I am afraid of mustard.” I won’t pretend that every day I am out in the streets crusading for a better tomorrow, but I know that my work will make a difference, however intangible, and I am becoming a stronger person all the time.

What made this volunteer abroad experience unique and special?

Justine: My experience is made special by the support of the other Fellows. I am grateful for the friendship of such accomplished, competent and smart people who I might not have met otherwise. I also gain a lot from my relationships with my coworkers. Almost everyone in my office is from villages outside of the city where I live and their personal stories have helped me gain a better perspective of Indian culture, what it means to work in the non-profit sector, and the barriers to development in countries like India.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Justine: Being in India makes me stronger every day. Personally, I am learning to channel the daily frustrations that come with living in a developing country into motivation to be more patient, humble and flexible. I am confident that any work challenges I encounter in the U.S. will be put into perspective by what I faced in India.