Halfway Point

Reflections (the personal)

Our time in the village area of Bhimavaram has come to a close.  There have been two tracks running simultaneously while we have been here – what I will call the personal and the educational – and at times it’s been difficult to manage the two.  This is simply a struggle we face in life; work[school]-life balance, personal growth vs. professional growth, however you want to phrase it, here on this trip it feels like a similar struggle, just in a completely new context.

  • The personal: This layer is about the experience.  It has encompassed so many things, including soaking up the language, culture, food, and sights, remembering to take photos and buy gifts, trying to stay physically healthy, taking the time to talk to the people we meet, appreciating the gracious Indian hospitality that we have been met with, spending time getting to know our group mates better, managing team dynamics   and so much more.
  • The educational: In the midst of everything, in the end we are here to complete 8 credits.  6 days from now we present on 2 consulting projects.  From now until then, there is work to be done.  So much about field work is challenging: honing in on the right questions to ask, hearing conflicting information, compounded by language barriers. Some of us have noted how field work is a new way of learning for us, and certainly different than what is included in the typical MBA curriculum.  I feel the pressure to deliver in a short period of time, and a fear of failing to meet expectations or disappointing our hosts at Byrraju.

Since I’ve started the MBA program, the pull between these two has been a new-found daily struggle for me. I tend toward sacrificing my personal time, friendships, or enjoyment in the name of school or work. India is good for me because it lends itself well to being spontaneous, and experiential.  Flexibility and risk-taking are essentially forced and I remind myself that by focusing on the personal, the educational will in fact be enhanced.

Water Project (the educational)

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At the Byrraju water plant in the village of Jinnuru

Katie and I were assigned Byrraju Foundation’s water project for our mini consulting project.  We spent Thursday and Friday developing questions and speaking with customers and non-customers in 3 different villages in order to assess where there may be areas of improvement for the program.  As it turns out, there are some interesting perceptions about what constitutes clean drinking water in these villages:  We found while some believe the government water provided for free causes health problems such as colds, coughs, and leg pains, others believe that purified Byrraju water causes these same problems.   My previous assumption that everyone would prefer purified drinking water if it was free and accessible was shattered. Answers only lead to more questions.  I am very much looking forward to continuing to work with Katie on this project as well as our project for Tom’s shoe donation program this week!

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Alison drinking Byrraju water, sending a strong message to all those who witnessed!

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Hospitality you’d never expect in a town you can’t help but love

I cannot express enough gratitude to the Byrraju Foundation. As I now sit on the night train to return to Hyderabad, I can finally fully reflect on the past 5 days spent in Bhimavaram (B-mov-rom) at the Byrraju Foundation guest house.

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No fewer than 20 people worked to make our stay as comfortable and successful as possible. But a few gentlemen in particular exhibited an incredible amount of hospitality. Vumsi, Bhanu and Siva not only organized all of our meals and transportation but also elected to monitor the various ailments occurring throughout the group and the comfort level with our lodgings. Each of these men has a significant role managing programs at the Foundation but still opted to spend the week at our service. For this I thank them.

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Siva, Vumsi, Siwat and the awesome spread for our final meal

Ranga Raju and M.R.K. Raju were also particularly helpful in acting as translators and guides for various groups in which I participated. They were so much fun and made our surveys possible! Ranga Raju even took us to his home for tea, and we spoke to his mother, wife and daughter-in-law. Byrraju felt like home in a very short amount of time. I will miss these now familiar faces.

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“The Professor” leading us to his home

By now you’re probably wondering the reason for our visit to Byrraju. I’m so glad you asked… The Byrraju Foundation is an incredible organization that works to bring needed services to the villages around the Foundation. The Foundation currently supports 200 villages with 40+ programs. Our group was split into three teams, and we are each focusing on a program for a mini-consulting project for the Foundation. I am working with Slater and Michelle on healthcare. Jude and Katie are working on water purification. Adam, Mike and Simon are working on virtual education. The whole group toured all three programs and received an overview from the Byrraju staff, as well as from those in charge of the respective programs on-site. We were then given the opportunity to visit additional facilities for our individual project and to conduct market survey research with the people of the villages.

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We didn’t even interview the woman in the second pic. But look at that adorable little bruiser!!

Each day this week has acted as a stepping stone to prepare us for this mini-consultancy project. And we will then leverage the learnings from this week and from this project as we begin our larger, culminating consulting projects next week. A typical day at Byrraju went something like this: 8am reflection meeting for 30-45 minutes before breakfast, lecture or class meeting for 1 – 2 hours, fieldwork in the villages conducting various market survey tasks, return to Byrraju for a debrief session and/or lecture, maybe more fieldwork or a random PR outing before dinner around 830, and finally free time. We typically spent our free time in the lecture hall as a group seeking the coveted ethernet cables.

Anywho… We spent yesterday getting a handle on our assignments and worked on creating our “instruments”, the question set we used to gather information from the villagers. We sought to obtain a picture of the target market, client profile, program reach, etc. And we then spent today interacting with another doctor and several villagers for our healthcare project. This seems like a good place to describe the way timeframes and plans work in India… oh, they don’t. Well, let me clarify. Plans work in India so long as you are prepared to constantly shift them, to go with the flow of uncertainty and to agree to random PR events. We do a lot of the ‘hurry up to slow down, figure things out and then eventually get there’. This is just how it goes. Assume you will accomplish about half as much as you think is reasonable. And do it with a smile.

I’m extremely excited to be working on the healthcare project. Slater and MIchelle have been fantastic teammates and the topic is challenging and interesting. SIdenote: the great thing about our group is that you really can’t craft a team that isn’t great. But it’s been a pleasure working with these two for the past two days. We were grouped up based (to the extent possible) on the topics we chose for our pre-trip papers so the assignments hold particular interest to each of us.

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Teammates!

This program has been a great mix of challenging work, interesting sight-seeing and fun with the group. A big thanks to Kim for being a great source of knowledge while also constantly creating an open and fun atmosphere. It’s been refreshing to have both a professor and hilarious travel companion wrapped into one.

Did I mention that this trip rocks?

Kate

Contrast is King

From the moment I arrived in Hyderabad, India, the friendliness and hospitality of the Indian people was visible, tangible and welcome. So too the intensity of contrasts, in every respect.

Some students from Hyderabad’s Institute of Management Technology (IMT) gave me the low-down over lunch. They told me about different parts of the same city having different customs, different dress codes, different languages. There are no rules of thumb here, its all about the context you’re in. Everything is here from bejeweled decadence to squalor, and everything in between. Within 20km from the IMT’s flash new campus are villages that go without power for much of the day, and to the bright young people at IMT this is a call of duty to make development more sustainable and equitable for all.

Now that I have come by train some 400km east-southeast of Hyderabad,  I find myself less than 40km from India’s eastern shore in the town of Bhimavaram, and in the company of my fellow PSU students once again – success! While having missed the first full day of field work was a setback, I felt welcomed and intent on throwing new energy and fresh perspective into the mix.

For my first primary research assignment I teamed up with Kate to explore the family and community factors of India’s overpopulation issue. The village we visited was nestled between a stream – complete with small herd of water buffalo – and rice fields. All of the residents we interviewed, with the assistance of some local MBA students who helped bridge the language gap, had some common characteristics: they were working at their home where they lived with their spouse, parent and 1- 3 children; had not completed high school, made between US$90-120 per month; put 20-30% (US$20-40) of that away for a rainy day; and were engaged in producing sickles used to harvest the fields.

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All except for Narsama: 60 years old, no children, making US$50 per month washing clothes. She has three brothers, one of whom she lives with, and who have three sons and three daughters between them. She spends only half of her pay on living expenses. While we asked her questions about her life I was struck by the realization that the purpose with which this village went about its business was not to supply sickles to local farmers or high school graduates to engineering colleges, but to simply be, to exist, to continue.

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Any population restriction interventions that fly in the face of that belief would therefore be seen as a threat to a community’s very existence, and would ultimately fail. One policy we discovered was an incentive scheme rewarding families who had only two children, seeking to strike a balance between continuation of community while addressing some overpopulation factors.

Today, as I awake from my first decent sleep in a while, I’ve made a conscious decision to not look at the schedule. There’s no risk of confusion as to where I need to be and when – I’m already here. In letting go of the need to know, I also let go of any expectations about the day’s activities, and am compelled to be prepared, accepting and grateful for whatever happens. Bring it on.

– Simon

You get what you give… so give what you’ve got

As I awoke from a more than questionable night’s rest on the night train from Hyderabad to Bhimavaram to begin my guard duties with Slater (i.e. make sure we all got off the train at the right stop to reunite with our instructors), I felt weary and almost dreading the long day ahead. This was not the way I wanted to start my stay at the Byrraju Foundation. A shower to wash the train off of me and some coffee rejuvenated me to a manageable level of exhaustion and the day began…

The agenda for the day: scavenger hunt around the town in the morning and our first visit to a rural village in the afternoon. The scavenger hunt required Slater, Katie and me to locate 5 social problems and solutions, conduct 4 interviews with locals and partake in several random activities around the town. The village visit required that same team to conduct 4 more interviews and develop a map of the village. Does this all seem a little random and loosely related to you? Ok good, it did to me too… but not for long.

Lesson 1: Rejuvenation and the ability to make the most of the day when you least feel like it comes from your “accountabilibuddies”.

As part of a program that only lasts for two weeks in a country that has so many things to teach me, I can’t afford to not bring my best self to each and every day and activity. And this is where we rely on our fellow travelers and friends. I must credit Slater with the term and for being my official “accountabilibuddy”, but we all take on that role when someone needs it. Afterall, we’re all in this together. And I was lucky to have the teammates I needed to make the most of the experience. And experience Bhimavaram we did!

We set out to first get our bearings and familiarize ourselves with the town by tackling the extra-curricular activities. We convinced a rickshaw driver to let Slater drive with me as a passenger only for Slater to find out that the brakes didn’t work well. A fruit stand almost paid the price for this realization, but, luckily, we made it unscathed and without causing a major scene! Slater also got a little too close to the wildlife that we were supposed to locate…

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Having a little fun at the beginning set the stage for group bonding and for me to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. As we progressed through our interviews and sought out our social problems, we began to sense something completely foreign.

Lesson 2: Give a little of yourself to India and its people. India will give so much more back to you.

We did something that would be a rare feat in America: we approached random people on the street and proceeded to ask them 15 seemingly random questions with nothing to offer them in return. And we were thanked for it. Repeatedly. The hospitality that has been felt in India is beyond words. I was blown away after our interview with the head nurse at a local hospital. Not only was she gracious with her time and information, but she also offered any assistance we might need during our stay. We’d only known her 8 minutes… Amazing.

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I realize now that I could spend days writing about the events that took place during my first day in Bhimavaram and my reactions to each individual one. I will close with this instead:

Lesson 3: Embrace each moment. Put your agenda aside and focus on the moments that find you. Let yourself get caught up in a rally of children and end up in the newspaper the next day (yeah, that happened!) Grab hold and take it all in.

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The time in India will come and go. The memories will last forever.

A big thank you to Katie and Slater for making this day the eye-opening experience that it was.

Kate

Scavenger hunt, or the benefits of experiential learning

The team, accompanied by the Byrraju staff, spent the morning in Bhimavaram City and the afternoon in a nearby village.

I’m a firm believer in experiential learning to anchor theoretical knowledge; a big shocker since I’m India. One of our required readings, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, offers 12 “practical solutions to poverty” which include:

  1. Go to where the action is.
  2. Talk to people who have the problem and listen to what they have to say.

Sounds a lot like experiential learning, doesn’t it?

In my opening post, I talked about perceptual lenses and the importance of being mindful of them. Despite that awareness and the intent to be watchful, it took being out in the field to realize I was still looking through the the lens of my own context.

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One of our survey questions was “If you were to dream of a much better life, what would that life look like?” I found the scale of dreams in the responses to be surprisingly small compared to what I realized later that I had been expecting. The rikshawala (rikshaw driver) we spoke to, for example, didn’t want to do anything else but keep pulling rikshaw for the rest of his life. Another person who had a water buffalo that produced income-generating milk, would have liked another water buffalo.

Try as I might, I could not get away from my own cultural context, expectations and assumptions. Perhaps it’s a function of the lifetime exposure to the halo effect of the American Dream. The underlying question I’ll be thinking about in the days to come is who decides whether the dreams expressed by these people are either appropriate or self-limiting?