At the close of a 2-week Gateway to India program - whereby Christ University, Bangalore hosted 26 Griffith Health students on a jam-packed social, cultural and religious whirlwind of India - Nutrition Major, Anisa Poonja stayed on for a further 6 weeks to complete practicum requirements with the University’s Centre for Social Action (CSA) in impoverished rural Bangalore.
With an Indian-born Father, Italian/Serbian mother and having once lived in Africa, Portugal, Canada and Australia, Anisa was no stranger to new cultures and disadvantaged communities but not even she was immune to the impact her Indian experience with CSA would have on her outlook on health and life in general.
CD: What were your reasons for staying in India?
AP: Well, I had the great opportunity to complete the rest of my practicum in India with Christ University, Centre for Social Action (CSA). I was offered the opportunity to evaluate how the interventions of CSA ‘Child and Community Development Project’ in rural Bangalore have reduced malnutrition in children from 0-6 years of age. With the great support of my amazing lecturer/supervisor Dr Fiona Rowe, it was decided that as the final part of my practicum I was going to conduct a research project investigating this matter. It was all very exciting!
CD: What did you enjoy most about the program?
AP: What I loved most about the program was visiting and learning about the different organisations that catered for the disadvantaged, such as the blind and orphaned. Christ University CSA conducted presentations on programs that their university students were involved in and it amazed me how much of a difference they have made and how much they cared for their people. It was definitely an eye-opener and we have a lot to learn from CSA.
CD: It sounds like it was a very unique experience. How did it all impact you?
AP: Going to India has definitely changed my life forever. I see the world in a different way now and appreciate even more the important, simple things in life. It certainly made me realise how we can get so consumed in the material world and become so preoccupied with ourselves.
CD: Who assisted you with the project?
AP: For the second part of my practicum I was on my own for 1 week before going onsite to the rural areas of Bangalore. Once there I was very well looked after by the Project Officer and Field Coordinators. I developed a very close and professional relationship with all of them. I have great respect for them and the work they have accomplished in improving the poor conditions of the villagers. It would not have been possible without them. The villages are completely sustainable now and malnutrition among children and mothers have greatly reduced.
CD: Where did you live while in India?
AP: I lived on site, in a beautiful and peaceful rural village at the CSA office. It was a two level house and downstairs lived a rural family. They were extremely friendly and helpful. Upstairs was the office, with an attached kitchen where I stayed on a futon-style mattress on the floor, which was surprisingly comfortable. The family downstairs would offer me fresh milk from their cows to make traditional Indian tea, which the Project Officer and Field Coordinators and I would all sit together and enjoy. So essentially I was staying on my own but I never felt alone thanks to my CSA colleagues.
CD: What strikes you as being one of the biggest differences between Australia and India?
AP: The mentality of Indians compared to Australians is quite different. There seems to be greater focus on family values and spirituality. I found the Indian culture to be very nurturing and complementing to both the body and soul. You find inner peace amongst the chaos of India.
CD: How important do you think projects like the Gateway to India Program are for staff and students?
AP: I think that overseas projects provide invaluable experience. Students and staff gain so many more skills and depth, which can only be obtained by stepping out of the circle. The newly gained knowledge and skills allows you to have a unique perspective into your field compared to other students. From discussions with the staff and students on Gateway to India, we all agreed that there were a number of programs that were being implemented by Christ University CSA that we could implement in Australia. We should also learn from their holistic approach to solving community issues - the point at the end of it is to learn from one another.
CD: What specific area in Public Health are you most interested and what attracts you to this area?
AP: Nutrition is my passion. It plays such a vital role in our day-to-day lives and I don’t think its importance can be overstated. A lot of people in both the developed and developing world lack knowledge in nutrition and opportunities for nutrition education, and I feel that for many, the connection between nutrition and overall health and wellbeing has been lost. It is my hope that through pursuing a career as a nutritionist I can help further people’s knowledge and strengthen this connection.
CD: What are your plans after graduating from Griffith?
AP: I plan on returning to India to further explore the country and reconnect with CSA to see what additional opportunities are available to me. I’m hopeful that I will be able to find work with CSA, as they have just implemented a similar program to the one I researched for my practicum, in another rural area in need of attention.
CD: Where do you see yourself in 5 years and what kinds of career experiences will you be looking for?
AP: I think it’s so important to have a vision and a direction in life. For me, my interest rests with working in disadvantaged communities in developing countries, and looking at ways to improve malnutrition, particularly in children. After exploring all of my opportunities in India, I am considering going to Namibia, Africa to pursue further work as a nutritionist.
For the next few years I want to explore malnutrition at a community level in developing countries so I can better under the determinants of and possible solutions to this problem. It is then my goal to use this knowledge to influence the development of policies to address this issue at a government level.
CD: What is the best advice you have ever been given in terms of achieving success in your education and career?
AP: The best advice given to me was from my supervisor Fiona during the Gateway to India program. It was my first time attempting field research and I felt unsure of my abilities. Fiona encouraged me to be confident in my abilities and believe in myself. I would give this same advice to other students looking to work in this field – focus on one thing at a time to avoid being overwhelmed, and don’t lose faith in your abilities.
Anisa Poonja photographed with children attending the local preschool on her first day visiting. She was interacting with them, holding informal interviews and recording simple observations.