Catherine Parr

My Project at Aravind

I just finished spending my summer at Aravind-Madurai, where I was working on improving the recruitment and management processes of the volunteer/internship program.  When I arrived, I learned that Dhivya and Srilakshmi took on a lot of the responsibilities related to the interns.  There were few formal systems and resources in place to ensure that a smooth transition from applying to onboarding to successfully completing a project.  My job was to find ways to improve the volunteer program by suggesting new practices for staff and creating resources for volunteers and interns.

To learn about how the program could be improved, I interviewed almost two dozen people, including current staff and intern supervisors, current interns, and past interns.  I learned about the strengths of the internship program and sought to exploit them and make sure future interns knew how to take advantage of those opportunities.  I also learned about the weaknesses of the program and looked for ways to improve them, both for supervisors and volunteers themselves.

Many past interns told me they loved the freedom they had at Aravind to explore different departments at the hospital.  There is generally an “open door” policy at meetings, and we were welcome to sit in on any meetings we wanted to attend.  One problem faced by my co-interns and me was that we did not know what departments existed or what meetings happened and when they were, so I asked Dhivya and Srilakshmi to help me put together a directory of the staff at Aravind/LAICO and a list of regular meetings.  By having a list of departments, we discovered that there were stakeholders and meetings related to our projects that we did not know existed.  I am hoping that when future volunteers are exploring how to approach their project, these resources can be helpful to them.

Another one of my deliverables was a website that will be sent to interns upon acceptance.  I was thinking about what skills I wanted to develop this summer and decided I wanted to learn how to use Wix to create a website.  There was an old website with resources for interns called “Vanakkam” (which means “welcome” in Tamil), but it was outdated and hard to navigate, so I suggested creating a new website and posting updated relevant information for people considering volunteering with Aravind.  Dhivya recommended creating a Blog section so future volunteers could learn about what to expect during your time at Aravind.  One piece of advice I have for future interns is to think about what you want to learn during your internship (both hard and soft skills), and see how you can incorporate that into your project.  The beauty in having so much freedom with your project is that you can use your unique skillset to add value to the organization and you can teach yourself something new to formulate a solution for your project.  Be creative!

I won’t bore you with any more details about my project, but some other things I worked on include checklists, lists of advice, evaluation forms, and final surveys for interns and supervisors, as well as researching options for implementing the usage of an application tracking system by the HR department.

My Experience as an Intern

One of the most challenging things about my experience at Aravind was having down time, especially at the beginning of my project.  I did not know what to do with my free time, but I talked to Dhivya about it and she put me in contact with Usha, who sent me content for the new Aravind website which I was able to help edit.  Additionally, the workdays were longer than I was used to, which could be exhausting.  It was hard to be in the same office working on the same project day in and day out, but being with my co-interns made it more fun.  We would take breaks to talk about the progress of our projects or life in India or whatever else was on our minds.  Sometimes I would walk around the LAICO building to stretch my legs and clear my head when I needed a break, and I recommend doing that if you ever feel overwhelmed or drained.

Sometimes when I met with stakeholders to talk about my project, they would offer new advice that meant I had to significantly change parts of my work that I had spent a long time working on or thinking about.  This is normal!  If someone is asking you to change something, try to keep an open mind and be patient.  They are asking you for this because they believe in your project and want it to be helpful to the organization after you leave.  It can be frustrating in the moment, but be humble and remember that they know what success looks like at Aravind and are sharing their wisdom with you.

My Advice to Future Aravind Interns

  1. I will start with what I mentioned above: be creative with your project.  Think about what you want to learn during your experience and talk about this with your supervisor.  There is probably a way to incorporate that skill into your project, or they will recommend a secondary project where you can develop those skills.
  2. Expect a different work environment than you are used to.  It is normal to walk into someone’s office to ask for their help without scheduling a meeting in advance, and sometimes you will need to do this in order to push ahead with your project.  The workdays are long and the work week is Monday through Saturday, which is tiring.  Expect to have downtime and look for constructive ways to fill it.
  3. If you have down time, ask for a second (or third) project.  There is work to be done and you have unique skills that people will want to take advantage of, and there is a lot you can learn by working with a different department.
  4. Look for fun ways to spend your time outside the office.  You might want to join a local gym or dance class, plan weekend trips, or read some books you have been waiting to have enough time to read.  Ask staff members for suggestions about where to spend your evenings and weekends.  My favorite trip was to Pondicherry!  We went on a bike tour, walked on the boardwalk, and had a half-day guided tour of Auroville (definitely worth it!).  Our favorite restaurants were Appams & Hoppers (chicken cheese appams are a must), Zaitoon (when you need a break from Inspiration food and want it delivered to the hostel), BBQ Nation (SO much food – go on a Sunday for lunch and you won’t need dinner), and Ibaco for ice cream (we were regulars).