Nine students from the Women’s Leadership program at Clemson University traveled to India during spring break with Professor Diane Perpich, the program’s director, as part of a senior year leadership seminar.

In a literacy class presented through SEWA, women and girls use chalkboards to respond to exercises presented on a laptop computer. Images courtesy of Juliana Baumann

The group worked in Ahmedabad with the Indian Academy of Self Employed Women  (SEWA), which is the education and outreach branch of India’s largest nongovernmental organization working to promote economic self-reliance and social security among the poorest women in the west-coast state of Gujarat. Ahmedabad is the fifth largest city in India, a regional center for government and was the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River.

For part of this study abroad trip, students were embedded in a rural village with a host woman and her family. This allowed students to experience life among India’s poor first-hand.

Perpich assigned all of her students to write about their experiences. Here are excerpts from the journal of Juliana Baumann, a senior from Haddon Township, New Jersey, who is majoring in both women’s leadership and psychology. Baumann previously traveled to India in 2017 with the Semester at Sea program.

March 13: Initial thoughts and departure

Student Juliana Baumann holds a cup of tea

At SEWA headquarters, Juliana Baumann and the other Clemson students were welcomed with a ceremony.

I’m going back to India! It’s crazy, but I can believe it. I had a lingering feeling when I left India in 2017 that I would return. Now it’s time! This women’s leadership major has taken me far – educationally, developmentally, and now physically. I’m ready to be in a new place again. I love to bask in the feelings of being uncertain and uncomfortable. I love a challenge. We are now on our flight from Atlanta to Qatar. Thirteen hours of flying – let’s go!

Okay, let’s start with some expectations. I know the trip is going to be a huge learning experience, filled with so many “take it all in” moments. I’m most looking forward to our encounters with the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), seeing its facilities and learning from the women at work in them! I suppose I’ll also discover more about myself and my place in this world.

This will be a fantastic adventure. It already is. We’re taking off to India!

March 15: First day in Ahmedabad

Flight, layover, flight and there we were at 2 a.m. finally arriving at our hotel. Snooze time. Wake up. Lunch! I’m excited to try the food in India again. Although I’ve had it before, the flavors and spices still surprise my palate. However, it’s kind of fun to just let go, say OK and pop whatever’s on my dish right into my mouth, even if I don’t know what it actually is. It’s all part of the immersion.

Women of India and Clemson are decorated with pigments for Holi, a spring festival of colors.

The women of SEWA and Clemson celebrated Holi, a spring festival of colors, by being decorated with powdered pigments

Cut to the lobby of the hotel and we were joined for the first time by our SEWA hosts.

We all jumped into a few vans and headed out onto the streets swarmed with traffic. This notion was familiar to me – the almost clashes and the “whoas!” I laugh as the cars honk, knowing we’ll be alright no matter how close they get. Speed stop slow speed speed speed stop speed stop! The pattern is so different from the United States.

Once we hopped out of the vans, onto a dirt road and breathed in, I was like, “Yup! I’m in India.” My body instantly recognized the feeling of the sun, the scent of the air and the crumble of sand in my shoes. I was struck by that in a way, a way that put a smile on my face knowing that I really was where I was.

As a group we wound through an urban living community, packing ourself in and out of one-room houses to meet SEWA women who are working informal jobs such as making kites, rolling bread, and cutting pant patterns. We began to see their types of labor live and in action.

March 16: Visits to Indian Academy for Self-Employed Women

Student Juliana Baumann looks at items sewn by the SEWA women.

Baumann looks at items sewn by women at a SEWA work center. In addition to using the center’s machines, the women often embroider items in their homes.

Upon arriving at the SEWA headquarters, we couldn’t have felt more welcomed. The morning started with about a five-minute long prayer, inclusive of all the religions and gods SEWA women may worship. Next up – the lighting of a lamp and the placement of bindis on our foreheads by SEWA leaders to embrace us into their sisterhood. We introduced ourselves, but don’t forget, you have to add behn onto the end of your first name. It means sister. We became Julianabehn, Dianebehn, Francescabehn, Emily Annebehn and so on! The giggles were accepted as we struggled to get our sister names down. I went with Juliebehn – rolls off the tongue easier!

Namratabehn, the director of the Indian Academy of Self Employed Women, went over our program schedule for the week. Hearing it from her, it felt real. We’re doing this! After a tea break, we went in depth about the history and structure of the SEWA organization. We began to better understand its efforts to reach the two goals of full employment and self-reliance for 2 million poor women workers in the informal work sector all across India. Through this presentation, I realized there’s really no other membership-based, capability-creating organization with comparable size and influence to SEWA in the United States. SEWA is truly one of a kind.

March 17: Sightseeing

We spent a lovely Sunday exploring some beautiful sights in Ahmedabad city, including the Calico textile museum, the Dada Hair stepwell and Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram.

The Calico Museum, the premier textile gallery of India, was a pleasant change of scenery with greenery just beyond its high gate. The exhibition area was mostly quiet and peaceful. My bare feet tapped freely on the cool ground. I’ve been to many museums that celebrate Christianity and Catholic art, but it was refreshing to be in a place honoring Hinduism and the Hindu gods.

March 19: Homestay with Kaushikabehn

An early morning. I woke up to what sounded like monkeys dancing around on the roof. Turns out, it was monkeys dancing around on the roof. Can you imagine? After chasing around the monkeys to take pictures of them, we headed to the rural villages we’d be visiting for our homestays.

Kaushika hosted Clemson students in her Bherai Village home. She sometimes works cutting cow feed in the surrounding fields.

I was joined by Clemson student Charlesebehn Minder, and two SEWA representatives Reemabehn and Meenabehn. We stayed at the home of Kaushikabehn in Bherai Village, about 1.5 hours out from Manipur. Nerves were building as we kept driving further and further out. Our qualms quickly passed when we arrived at the home of Kaushikabehn and met her family and friends in the village. They were extremely welcoming. Immediately, Charlese and I began participating in our “host lady’s” daily activities, which included working in an agriculture field, visiting the village school, teaching a women’s literacy class, and working as a SEWA representative in helping other women open their own savings accounts or sign up for government benefit plans.

Back at Kaushikabehn’s home, we talked about her life and the challenges she has faced. Unfortunately, Kaushikabehn fell ill when she was young and had to drop out of school to recover. That was the end of her formal education. She was then married, but her husband died within two years. Kaushikabehn does not have any children and did not get remarried, which she shrugs off as never part of her destiny. Rather, she said her destiny was to become a SEWA leader in her community and to have the opportunity to help many women, children and men, not just her own family.

Speaking about family, I reflected on some similarities and differences between the host lady’s house and the one I grew up. I was struck by the versatility of their one-room home. It was the kitchen, the family room, the bedroom, the sitting room, the office and all. It simply transitioned throughout the day to fit our purposes. Similarly to my homelife, there was a great sense of family and community within the village. It seems these values stay relevant no matter what culture or country you are in. The homestay was a great experience, and was crucial to truly understanding what daily life is like for those in poverty.

March 22: Heading home

Clemson students and the women of SEWA pose together.

Students from the Women’s Leadership senior seminar in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities pose with the women of SEWA.

Wow. It’s time to head back home to the USA. I’m ready! We’ve truly embraced every experience within this week that we could’ve. We were seeing, learning, and doing non-stop. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

We engaged with many inspiring women within SEWA. We heard stories that made us laugh, cry, hope, and think. Most importantly, we came to a deepened understanding of women’s leadership through some of the toughest challenges around the globe. After this trip, I feel I have a heightened perspective on these women’s lives that couldn’t have been captured just through the textbook reading we did beforehand. Nothing is more impactful than hands-on experiential learning and reflection.

After my first study abroad experience, I considered myself a global citizen. Now after this trip to India, I feel even more educated on what global engagement can accomplish. It was an absolute honor to participate in this Clemson SEWA exchange and I couldn’t have been happier to share it with such remarkable Women’s Leadership students and faculty. We’ll always be the class that was a catalyst for this partnership. I’ll forever be proud to have been part of that.

It’s time to bring home the lessons from SEWA to our own communities and families. Let’s see what we can do!