Rachael Rich, while getting her undergraduate degree in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCN) at the University of Michigan, decided to take a leap of faith and venture to Kolkata, India, for a month as a Center for South Asian Studies’ Summer in South Asia (SiSA) Fellow in May of 2019. 

“I had never really done anything fully by myself yet at that point in my life,” says Rich. “I just thought that if I could live in India alone, I could probably do many other difficult things too.” 

It might have started as a journey of empowerment, but it turned out to be so much more. Rich spent the month working with an organization called Ummeed, meaning “hope” in Hindi. Ummeed is an NGO that works holistically to promote emotional and psychological wellness for people from socially and economically deprived backgrounds. 

“It was interesting to see the varied clinical approaches there versus here, especially because India has a lot of stigma around mental health,” adds Rich. “My team was all women. We worked on case studies centered around Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), traveled to elementary schools to educate young first-generation students about their emotions, spoke with nervous expectant mothers, and aimed to increase communication and comfort for women and kids there. It was incredible.” 

Rich says she learned many lessons from her fellowship.

“One of my favorite memories was helping to lead a life skills group to second graders,” says Rich. “The kids were curious about who I was, why I was there, and what I meant about empathy and coping with stress. It was so interesting to see things through fresh eyes. Everything is so fast-paced in the states, and I think we can get carried away with it all. They helped pull me back in.”

Starting in 2006 with a generous donation from an anonymous donor, the SiSA fellowship has provided more than 100 students with funding to volunteer or conduct projects in India during the summer months. In addition to Rich, nine other Michigan undergraduate students participated in the program in 2019. They traveled all over the country and worked in varying fields of study and interest. 

“Some of the most impactful things I learned from the fellowship were the soft skills,” continues Rich. “Even just applying to a program like this where you design your project and advocate for your funding was powerful. Convincing people why I should be able to go and justify my own capabilities was new to me. I’m always learning more, but it was my first real introduction to being firm and confident while still staying soft and grounded.” 

Rich is currently a Clinical Research Coordinator in Harvard University’s Psychology Department. She is part of a team running the largest longitudinal research study her lab has conceived, examining early life stress in teens. Using fMRI, clinical assessments, and measures of physical activity, sleep, and social behavior, the study aims to help uncover the mechanisms linking stressful life events to the onset of mental health disorders. Rich hopes to attend graduate school for her Clinical Psychology PhD within the next few years. 

The Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) is currently accepting applications for the SiSA fellowship for the summer of 2023. They are due by January 20, 2023, and the results will be announced in February. 

“With Covid restrictions behind us, we are hoping for a lot of student interest,” says Matthew Hull, CSAS director. “Going to India and studying there as a college student changed the trajectory of my own life. It’s an invaluable experience.” 

For more information on the SiSA fellowship, please visit our website.