A few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to share my reflections on the CASI experience, one year after my internship at Aravind ended. My then-and-now roommate Sindhu and I trekked up to New York City, where we explored the city for the day and attended the Annual Khemka lecture at night. We listened to Dr. Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India, present a bleak portrait of the current state of healthcare in India and the reasons why he believes that it can one day be universalized. After the lecture, I dined on deliciously authentic dosas and conversed with the crew of CASI alums and board members that were working in New York or came up for the lecture. I enjoyed chatting with everyone about how CASI has impacted their lives over the years.
The next morning, Alex Iqbal, Jonathan Paz, and I met at the University Club to share our stories with the CASI Board of Directors. Alex painted a powerful picture of what her internship at Chirag has meant to her, Jonathan delivered a poignant tale of human connection at Lend-A-Hand, and I described why CASI is so much more than just a summer internship. I had spoken at the annual board meeting in Philadelphia last year, and I was excited to return before the board to share with them the sense of ownership I felt over the CASI internship, as well as the opportunities my internship had opened up to me since then.
Here’s the full transcript of my presentation:
Hello, my name is Christina Wu, and I am currently a senior at Penn studying Health & Societies. When I spoke at the board meeting a year ago, I had just returned from an incredible summer interning at Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai, Tamilnadu. At the time, I thought CASI was just a summer internship, but I soon learned that it’s an experience that extends far beyond the summer. CASI has been a defining part of my experience at Penn, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to promote and grow it further so that future students can have the same transformative experience that I have had.
After returning to Penn, my intern class was responsible for being on the front lines of recruiting and outreach for the following year. One of my fellow interns, Sam, and I would spend some time in different locations on campus, where interested applicants would find us to chat with us about our internship experiences. I remember meeting at one of these Chai Chats Diana Blidarescu, one of our interns this year. We spent nearly an hour describing our professional development experience there and regaling her with anecdotes about our daily lives and travels. I wanted to foster more discussion about the opportunities CASI had to offer, so I utilized my resources as a College House Research Fellow to plan a dinner event at which interns presented on their experiences.
Once applications were submitted, I also helped to interview our top candidates. I couldn’t help but reflect on how much I had changed since I was on the other side of the interview, since my time in India. During the interviews, I found that because I cared so much about Aravind and the relationships my fellow interns and I had established there, I really wanted to find candidates that would be able to continue where we left off. I helped to interview Gaby Borja, a freshman that interned at Aravind this year, and I remember being so impressed by his genuineness and his humility in answering the questions I posed. I knew that he would serve as a strong representative of CASI.
Since my fellow interns and I were the first ones from CASI to intern at Aravind, we were constantly thinking about how we could help improve the internship and better support the future interns. Out of that desire grew the idea for the CASI Survival Guide, which sought to prepare interns in every possible area we could think of, from the best books and movies for setting context to calming your parents’ anxiety. As CASI Buddies paired with this year’s interns, we provided our buddies with support throughout their internships, preparing them a guide to Madurai, which they then continued to add to for future interns.
Aside from the programmatic aspects of CASI, I have been so grateful for the community it has given me. Here’s a map of all the places that the recent graduates from my 2012 intern class currently are. Although I hardly knew the other interns before last summer, we returned to Penn with a natural connection because of the experiences we had shared. While reading the blog posts this year, I reminisced about how excited I was whenever another intern across the country posted, and how close to them I felt through following their personal growth throughout the summer. We still regularly meet up, and my friends who have done other summer programs at Penn are envious of the unique community we have that other programs aren’t able to provide.
When Sam, Sindhu, and I were in India, we did not know if the relationships and dynamic we had established there would continue outside of Aravind. Upon our return, we discovered that these were not only specific to the time and place and mutual experience but would in fact last a lifetime. Sindhu is my roommate this year, and I know that we probably would not have been friends if we hadn’t spent a summer together, struggling with difficult questions of where we’re headed and how we fit into the larger picture. Now we continue these discussions over Greek yogurt and granola in our living room.
So all of that brings me to where I am now, which is somewhere along a trajectory on which my time at Aravind sent me. After Aravind piqued my interest in ophthalmology, I began to volunteer for Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia on a project related to glaucoma in Chinese American seniors. That inspired me to write my thesis on the perceived barriers to receiving eye care for Chinese American seniors, which then helped me to discover my broader interest in the health of the elderly. Now, I am applying for a Fulbright to study dementia in the elderly in China. I decided to apply to go to China because, after my grassroots internship in India, I wanted to experience my own culture in a new way, on my own terms, over a longer period of time. I’m also considering applying for the CASI Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship and am currently exploring options to work with elderly health in India. Although I’m not completely sure in which direction I’m headed, one of the best lessons I learned in India last summer was the value of being open to changing plans.
Aparna Wilder, Jonathan Paz, and myself outside of the University Club (missing Alex Iqbal)