Nithya Vemireddy

Nithya is a guest contributor for Ashoka U's Student Changemaker Stories campaign. She is a June 2018 graduate from Santa Clara University.

Making Sense of the World We Live In

This blog is part of Ashoka U’s Student Changemaker Stories: a campaign bringing together diverse student changemaker perspectives to shift the narrative around what it means to be a changemaker and who can be one – on campus and beyond. Each story concludes with a note of gratitude and call-to-action from the author.

Post-graduation, day 191.

I was in a small, stuffy room, hearing sniffling and tissues passed from woman to woman. I observed a woman at the front of the room suppressing her tears as she described her pain as a single mother unable to provide for her children. When she fell to the floor sobbing, the women immediately surrounded her to offer soothing words, physical comfort, and community. 

During the car ride back to my office, I realized I was the only one in the room who did not shed a tear. It wasn’t until after dinner that night that I cried for this woman. I thought back to multiple moments at Santa Clara University (SCU) where I questioned my ability to do this type of work. 

My Changemaker Journey 

Instructing a woman on how to pose for a photo in rural Gujarat.

In 2014, as a determined first-year student at SCU, I aspired to take full advantage of the educational and extracurricular opportunities offered. By my third year, I enrolled in SOCI60 Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship: Leading Change, an interdisciplinary experience that launched my journey to think and experience beyond the classroom. 

This class introduced me to a variety of pathways critical to my journey as a changemaker:  learning about the field of social entrepreneurship, conducting sociological analyses, and eventually participating in the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Awarded Ashoka U’s Cordes Innovation Award in 2017, the fellowship combined two quarters of academically-rigorous research with an immersive, global field experience during the summer. Paired with a peer fellow, I conducted a research project assessing the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise in India that imagines a world where each individual has access to crucial information.

This fellowship validated my potential to cultivate my path as a changemaker. In addition, I gained a mentor who helped me process my fellowship experience and connect it to values I wanted to bring into my studies, work, and life. This mentor was Keith Douglass Warner OFM, Senior Director of Education and Action Research at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. 

What Makes a Mentor? 

Keith and I, along with two other Fellows, after we all won Senior Awards.

Relying on his background as a Franciscan Friar, Keith guided me through the practice of self-reflection and provided support throughout the post-college transition. He asked thought-provoking questions such as “What does success look like to you?” permitting me to create appropriate long-term goals. 

Keith’s mentorship also made me conscious that my Indian heritage allows me to play a special role in the exchange of knowledge and experience between India and America. He encouraged me to apply and subsequently accept the American India Foundation’s (AIF) William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, a ten-month program that promotes participatory partnerships between professionals and organizations committed to serving marginalized communities across India.

Searching for Post-Graduation Alignment

Two months after graduating, I began working at Prajwala Sangham, an NGO in Hyderabad that uses the power of storytelling to develop leadership within changemakers, organizations, and marginalized communities. I became deeply involved in their Sthree Kala Project, working with women in the police, prisons, villages, and educational institutions to claim their rights within the areas of identity, safety, and health. 

The typical sunset from my rooftop during these times of reflection.

Throughout my AIF Clinton Fellowship, I ended every workday sitting on my roof, facing the sunset. The sky always became a blended assortment of pink, orange, yellow, and purple. During these sunsets, I reflected on my day and took a conscious look at my emotions, experiences, and responses.

By becoming more aware of how I saw and thought about myself, I was able to better understand my personal beliefs, expectations, and biases in relation to my work and my changemaking journey. 

I frequently reflected back to my journey at SCU. The unique blend of coursework that promoted critical thinking, the deeply immersive experiences, and the personal mentorship from Keith all allowed me to make the most of my post-graduation chapter. 

Reflection as a Key Tool for Changemaking

In these connections, I understood my post-graduation time was ideal for observing and gaining new insights into the social forces that shape our environments and influence our thoughts/behaviors. I began to shift from questioning, “Am I making a difference?” to “How can I envision sustainable, long-term change for the communities I’m interacting with?” 

An exercise Prajwala Sangham does to promote community within the workshop participants.

The practice of deep reflection allowed me to navigate the frequent mental and emotional exhaustion that comes from changemaking. This tool has been critical in my post-graduation work, where I’ve spent much time surrounded by women and communities working through intense, traumatic experiences. Contemplative reflection has grounded my pursuit of equity for all. 

We all need a place where we have permission to truly connect with why we do the work that we do.

Today, many socially-driven organizations are at a crucial moment of scalability because they, too, are focusing on the question of why their work matters. 

As a changemaker today, I remain committed to helping these organizations better answer that question, as well as continuing to answer it myself. 

Closing Words from Nithya

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