Person of the Week: Amruta Houde

Dear Readers,

In this interview series where we ask questions to people who are making a difference, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution to our society. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.

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Amruta Houde is from Atlanta, where her parents and brother currently live. She received her  Master’s in Psychology from Boston University and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University. Amruta has been associated with various community organizations since her childhood and, in the past few years, closely with Sewa International. After her Master’s, she recently spent 8 months traveling around 10 states in India and Sri Lanka working with local NGOs on adolescent health programs.

Following are her views on some of our questions.

Tell us something about yourself?

I am an Indian-American from Atlanta and currently doing my Master’s in Public Health in New York City. My academic background is in psychology but I’ve recently decided to switch fields and I’m particularly passionate about global mental health. I especially enjoy exploring new places and reading!

What motivated you to volunteer in India and what did you learned from your time there?

My parents always reminded me that I was privileged to live the life I lead and it was my responsibility to step outside of that bubble and use the time, resources, and knowledge that I had to selflessly serve all those around me. Before 10th grade, my family and I went to visit an urban slum area in Pune and saw the transformation that had occurred in the children there through the well-planned activities and dedication of the volunteers. I felt a spark. I then spent two summer vacations volunteering in India but that wasn’t enough either.

My time in India last year transformed my worldview. I lived in homes made of bamboo and mud, a high-rise apartment building, and an orphanage. Immersing myself in each of those vastly different scenarios taught me to understand and appreciate every person’s unique story that has shaped who they are. Interacting with so many people from remote villages to cosmopolitan cities showed me that we’re more similar than we think. I observed many divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even though we’re all one. A higher standard of living does not mean one has a greater standard of life, it’s just different. When you boil it down we face the same challenges, just in different forms and circumstances.

What were some of the challenges that you saw girls face in India and steps that might help in overcoming those challenges?

The overarching challenge that I saw girls facing was low confidence. This has been shaped by countless factors, such as family, the media, cultural norms, friends, and the education system. One experience that stands out to me was when I began teaching self-defense to girls in a slum. The first day I left the slum it was pitch dark outside. I got into a shared rickshaw with 10 men. Thankfully there was nothing to worry about, but it made me realize that I had never thought much of such situations until I looked at it from the perspective of the girls I had just met. Would they have felt scared or uneasy? What would have happened if it was unsafe? Teaching them self-defense was more than just the punches and kicks. It was about guiding them to find confidence within themselves.

If you have to fix one thing about the public healthcare in India and US what would that be?

The longest I’ve lived in India was 8 months so I haven’t truly experienced being a part of the public healthcare system there. However, based on my exposure, I felt that the root of it all was a lack of health education in both urban and rural areas. I had the opportunity to survey hundreds of adolescent girls and their mothers and discovered an enormous amount of misconceptions and stigma even discussing women’s health. Many advancements have happened some urban areas, but this needs to spread from changes in how health is discussed in the education system. I believe development of better health curriculum and guidance on discussing health amongst families can be the start.

On the other hand, the US faces a very different set of challenges in the public healthcare system. The US currently spends the highest amount on health care of any similar income level country. Although we have a plethora of resources, so many are not able to access them because of high costs. This has created a huge degree of inequity. Health is a human right. Reducing the cost of health care in the US is essential to the progress of our country and equity for all.

Do governments see NGOs as partners or necessary liabilities, what’s your take on this matter?

NGOs are able to reach communities where the government is unable to. At first I thought, well, why isn’t the government doing all the work that these volunteers are doing? As time went on I realized that NGOs had the power to reach individuals and motivate them to create change within their own communities. This is because the volunteers of these organizations have often also experienced the challenges of the community. I feel that true change happens when there are emotions involved. The local citizens truly take ownership of their surroundings and are invested in the progress of the place and people they care for.

Why should a youngster take a break from his academic pursuits to give time to volunteering in your opinion?

There is much more to our development as students than just academics. The classroom only provides a part of the picture. If it weren’t for this so called “taking a break,” I wouldn’t have even thought about going into the field of public health. I feel that we get the most value from our academic experiences if we’re applying it in the world around us.

What was the most inspiring moment of your volunteering experience?

Pinpointing one particular experience is challenging. But my most inspirational time was the 2 months I spent in Assam, Meghalaya, and Nagaland in Northeast India. I spent time with countless individuals who were putting their lives on the line to serve the community. This was the embodiment of selflessness. Within a short period of time I began to see that the decision I had made to spend 8 months of my life in India was nothing in comparison. This was a small sacrifice compared to those who constantly put the needs of the society above their own.

As a young voter, what are your expectations from the next president in oval office?

A week ago I would have answered this question very differently. Now my hopes have shifted from the president to the people of the United States. I believe that the strength lies the voice of the people. I hope that we are able to unite and find that we have more similarities than differences. I feel that organizations, the government, and the citizens can work together for the benefit of the nation.

Your message for our readers?

Oftentimes people feel that they want to create change in their communities but they don’t know where to start. The change starts with you. There’s no “perfect time” to start serving the community. Find what your passionate is and stand up for what you believe in. Whether that idea is that every child has a right to a good education or you feel that your community needs more affordable healthy food options. All you have to do is offer to tutor students or create a garden for your community. So find what cause fuels you and take action because there is no better time to start, than right now.

6 Comments

  1. Awesome girl. Love this interview.
    Congrats.

  2. You are an insipration to many young kids and adult like me. Thanks for your time, efforts
    And dedication!
    Keep the good work!

  3. Very inspiring interview. Needs to be shared with larger communities and young students.

  4. Amruta, When you were volunteering in North Eastern part of India you used to write blog postings with your daily experiences there. I showed one of your first blog to my daughter. Your post made her think a lot quietly and I am sure that she inspired a lot from your work. She asked me so many questions that day. She asked me almost everyday after that about how you are doing there and any new posts/updates.

  5. Gaurav Singhal says:

    Awesome work amruta

  6. Very inspiring story. Thanks for the dedication.Thanks to indianperiodical as well for ensuring to report stories like this which is applicable to the current generation.

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