Beginning in 2006, thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor, the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) Summer in South Asia Fellowship (SiSA) has provided over 100 students with funding to volunteer and conduct a project in India over the summer months. The program is designed to be student-centered.

Students awarded fellowships in 2023 will receive $4,500, typically sufficient to cover all or most costs associated with traveling to—and time spent in—India. Applications are being accepted until January 20, 2023, for the summer 2023 program.

CSAS was able to sit down with our anonymous donor and learn about their thoughts behind the program. 

What Inspired You To Fund This Fellowship? And Why India?

My family has had a relationship with the University of Michigan for more than 100 years. I received an excellent education at the university, which enabled me to have a successful career as a petroleum geologist. Consequently, after I retired, I wanted to do something which would positively impact current and future students.  

Before I retired, I made several business trips to India. Before my initial visit, my previous international travel had solely consisted of going to exotic Windsor, Ontario, in Canada.  That experience did not adequately prepare me for the overwhelming crush of people, the cacophony of sounds, and the distinctive odor when I first walked out the door of the Arrival Hall at New Delhi’s International Airport.  My first reaction was similar to Judy Garland’s when Dorothy arrived in the Land of Oz and exclaimed: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

I found India to be a land of immense contrasts:

  • Enormous wealth vs. abject poverty.
  • Incredible natural beauty vs. urban blight.
  • Ancient cultures vs. Bollywood.
  • Traditional villages vs. cosmopolitan cities.
  • The latest IT vs. bullock carts.
  • The world’s largest democracy vs. corruption, political gridlock, and communal strife.

I found India fascinating, disturbing, enjoyable, frustrating, and, above all, mind-expanding. India captivated me. Therefore when I learned about the novel concept, which became the Summer in South Asia (SiSA) Program, it immediately resonated with me.

Why Allow Students To Pick Their Projects?

Who would be better qualified than the students to make those decisions?  They know where their passions and specific interests lie and understand what independent research projects will best contribute to their education and future career aspirations.

This approach has been highly effective. It has resulted in an eclectic assortment of projects from all parts of the university’s campus. The fellows have worked in the megacities of India, the smallest rural villages, the Himalayan foothills, and southern India. This is a list of the broad categories of projects:

  • Public Health
  • Environmental
  • Business
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Religion
  • Poverty/Economics/Development

Is There One Thing That You Hope All Students Gain From This Experience?

I wanted the fellows to be exposed firsthand to the rich tapestry of India’s cultures, religions, history, politics, and social structures – the “real” India, not the “sanitized” India which tourists experience. I wanted the SiSA Program to be unique and challenging, forcing the students out of their comfort zones. It should be completely different from the typical, much more structured study abroad programs. I wanted the students to have authentic, person-to-person interactions with the urban and rural people of India, which, in some small way, would improve understanding and relationships between the citizens of India and the United States.

You Have Heard From Past Fellows After Their Trips.  Were You Pleased With How The Experience Was For Them And What They Gained Out Of It?

“Pleased” does not adequately capture the sense of gratification that I feel when I read the acknowledgment letters from the 103 fellows who have participated. I love hearing about the positive impact that their experiences in India have had on them. Some of my favorite quotes from them: 

  • “Never before have I endured such a challenge.  It is hard to imagine a more fulfilling trip, and I am hard-pressed to conjure a more effective way of threading common bonds between people from different corners of the globe.”
  • “I learned more in the seven weeks in India than throughout my three years in Ann Arbor.”
  • “Traveling solo throughout India has been the most eye-opening and empowering experience of my life. I gained a sense of confidence in myself that I never had before. A truly transformative experience that defined my junior year in college and shaped my future career goals.
  • “When asked to describe my summer this year, I always struggle to find the right words – unforgettable, amazing, unique, impactful, eye-opening, bittersweet, inspiring. It was undoubtedly the most difficult experience but also the most rewarding.”
  • “I am from a tiny agricultural town in western Michigan where few people travel outside the state. The entire community looked forward to the emails I sent my parents to hear about my stories and see the pictures I had taken.”
  • “My career path has changed, and my worldview has been thrust open. My life has been changed.”

You Have Chosen To Remain Anonymous. Why?

My focus has always been on providing students with the exceptional educational experience of a lifetime which they could not get in any other way.  I am not interested in gaining personal notoriety.

Do you have a favorite story from the SiSA fellowships? 

One of my all-time favorite stories was based on the parting words of a teenager who lived in a South Indian village that had daily power outages, "Remember, you will always have a sister here."  She was speaking to a SiSA fellow who had been responsible for the placement of solar panels on the roof of her school so the building's computer lab would always have a reliable source of electricity. It's my favorite because it conveys the positive impact which a student fellow can have on an Indian community, as well as the appreciation and personal connection that is a direct result of the SiSA Program.