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Headwaters Voices: Jennifer Carlson, Class of 2010

Headwaters Voices is a series of blog posts by Headwaters community members. These posts give a snapshot of what is happening on our campuses at any given time. This week’s post is from Headwaters graduate Jennifer Carlson, Class of 2010.

Headwaters gave me the freedom, support, and encouragement to explore my passions. It became very clear over the years and Project Weeks that serving others was one of them. I ended up getting an internship with The Miracle Foundation in Austin during my senior year. Their mission is to empower orphans in India to reach their full potential. This experience taught me a lot about how non-profits work, and left me wanting to experience the work that was being done on the ground in India. I was determined to see more of the world and to understand the struggles that people face on a daily basis. I felt like this experience would help me to better decide what I should focus my studies on in college. I worked and saved my money to make a gap year possible. I was connected to another organization in southern India, Our Home.  Our Home has a school and two homes for orphaned and homeless children. I spent four months there volunteering, teaching, and taking care of the kids. I spent the next two months traveling throughout India. I went to Varanasi and saw the Ganges River, did some yoga in Mysore, trekked through the Himalayas for ten days, did some work with The Miracle Foundation in Jharkhand, saw the Taj Mahal, and ended my journey in New Delhi. I think that choosing to take two months to travel instead of staying at the home the whole time was extremely important. It allowed me to experience more of India. It is important to keep in mind that there is always more than one narrative to any country. There is suffering but there is also great beauty and hope.

It’s very difficult for me to sum up what I learned during those six months in a few paragraphs. But I can say that this experience affected me profoundly and changed a lot of my views. I left Austin ready to learn and to offer love to the kids at Our Home, although I don’t think that I was entirely prepared for the scope of experiences that I was about to witness. A lot of my experiences brought to light how many aid organizations are not really achieving what they say they are, or how some aid projects are much more detrimental than beneficial. A lot of the hard issues that exist in India can be traced back to colonialism. When traveling and experiencing other cultures, educating yourself is key. It’s important to try and understand the complexity of conflicts and their historical context before you even get on the plane.

The biggest question that has been on my mind ever since I came back has been how does one go about creating positive change in the world without continuing the cycles of colonialism and oppression? I am finding out that this is actually a very difficult question to answer. I think that it’s important to have conversations about this and things like privilege, cultural appropriation, and ethnocentrism.

Wherever you go in the world and whatever you do, I think that it’s important to just listen. It was important for me to realize that I didn’t have the answers to a lot of problems that people were facing. If you are interested in doing any type of volunteering or social justice work, I ask you to take the time to seriously reflect on this quote by Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian activist: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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