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24 Aug

Welcome to the website of the Carnegie Mellon Social Change Semester!

The Social Change Semester brings Carnegie Mellon students from Pittsburgh to Qatar and India. Our goal: to learn how to change the world by partnering with those who are already making a difference.

DSC01333The semester begins in Doha, Qatar, where we live at the CMU-Qatar campus and collaborate with migrant workers from South Asia. While teaching these workers English, we learn from them about Qatar, South Asia, and the inequalities of travel. We learn to recognize the privilege of studying abroad when many travel out of necessity.

From Qatar, we fly to rural central India, where we live at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Maharashtra. We work with a rural development organization, the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, to carry forward Gandhi’s legacy. We assist the Bajaj Foundation and its village partners with projects in water management, alternative energy, women’s empowerment, sustainable agriculture, and village industries.IMG_6301

From Sevagram, we travel to one of India’s largest cities, Chennai. There, we partner with educational organizations that focus on educating and empowering underprivileged children: the Avanti Fellows and Visions for Global Empowerment. Throughout the semester, students take courses and conduct research, while designing and implementing service projects in collaboration with our local partners.

IMG_2272By directly engaging in the many challenges and opportunities facing Qatar and India, students gain the confidence, purpose, global awareness, and intercultural skills that are best learned via service-based experiential education overseas.

We learn with our partners how to mobilize social innovation in pursuit of social justice. Together, we leverage CMU’s resources to advance the work of our community partners in Qatar and India.

If you would like to know more about the Social Change Semester, please contact Nico Slate at or read below the student blogs from our last semester.


New York, New Normal

2 May

It is cold here and eerily quiet. Somehow, the chaotic city I left behind in January feels mild and appears infinitely more organized. Self-consciously I wonder if this means that the city now regards me as the tumultuous one – it would only make sense. I talk patronizingly slower now, use shorter sentences, and exaggerate all of my hand gestures. Habitually, I even elongate the pronunciation of my words and overemphasize the letters “l” and “m”. I continue to procrastinate unpacking the single carry-on-seize luggage that I lived out of the entire semester. Not because it is a difficult or time-consuming task, but because when I unzipped my suitcase I found that it smelled like India. And, I am just not ready for that to change.


Admittedly, I expected life to stand still while I was away. A slightly selfish and greatly impossible expectation, I am now left with the task of adjusting to a new normal. In order to navigate this “new normal” I must re-evaluate what I want my role/place to be. I mean . . . I too failed to remain the same. I arrived back to New York blessed by experiences that shaped my understanding of friendship, hospitality, courage, and the value of education. My teachers: Akash & Suraj, the women of Vijayagopal, the Tiger Group, the Avanti Fellows, and the Sustainable Social Change Family. Half of a world now separates me from almost all of these remarkable and inspiring people. It is difficult not to fear what comes next.


A poem by Mira Malathy, a fierce twelfth standard Tamil student, reminded me to push past my anxiety –


“My aim is to become a I.A.S officer.

I know that my dream is big,

but I should have to achieve that.

Many kind hearts are there to help me.

I have to utilize their help to grow.

Many struggles will come in between,

it is okay. I have my strong mind.

If I may fail at my first step,

I will not give up my ambition.

I have my own slogan in my life

that is “heart-ly faith never

falls or fails” I hope that

I will achieve my ambition one day!”


These last four months in Qatar and India were only the beginning – a first step. The second is carrying forward the legacy of sustainable social change in the United States.


Along the way, I am certain “many kind hearts are there to help.”


– Alexandria Hernandez

The Evening of 25 April 2013

25 Apr

We’re about to go to our final meal together. As I write this, I have about 50 minutes before I am to meet everyone in the hotel lobby.

Spending so much time in hotels recently has got me thinking about the transience of life. Hotel rooms, for me at least, are an ideal representation of this transience – a metaphor, you could say. I think about how people have lived in this room before me and will live in the room after I leave. I put my clothes on the shelf, I put my toothbrush by the sink. I am made to think, for the time that I spend here, that this room is mine. Make yourself comfortable. My sink. My shelf. My chair. My bed. It’s not mine. It never was.

Not even the things that I actually own will be mine forever. My shoes will wear out. The strap on my backpack will tear. My watch will stop working. I will have to choose to repair these things or buy new ones, but in the end it’s all the same. They’re all just things that I use, and none of them are permanent.

The same thing goes for relationships – familial, romantic, friendships, you name it. And I don’t mean this in a completely pessimistic way. I just mean that not everyone will be in our lives forever. Heck, we won’t even be around for forever. People move away and go to different places, people die. We are all together for a certain amount of time, and that’s it.


_MG_2968 resized for wordpress


It is neither good nor bad. This is just how it works. We can be thankful or resentful, we can fight and try to change it or we can accept it.

One of the things that we can control is how we allow these relationships, our interactions with the world and with each other, to affect how we act and how we see the world.

The police officer takes another bribe.

The young man walks with his grandmother to the store.

The girl checks her younger sister’s head for lice.

The beggar receives a handful of potato chips from a passerby.

And I move to my next hotel room.

– Marcy Held

The Sweet Stench of Service

10 Apr

“It feels like entering an indoor, heated swimming pool. It’s just missing that chlorine smell,” Wesley says.

“Eww. You’re right,” Marielle agrees.

The echoing sounds of children’s laughter and the palpable waves of heat truly do bring a swimming center to mind. We’ve just left the oasis of air conditioned taxi and are now preparing to enter the Chennai Girls Higher Secondary School, where Avanti Fellows holds its after school programs. Avanti Fellows is an organization that provides a variety of mentoring and learning programs to supplement the education of students from low income families. We’ve currently teamed up with them to expose the students to something a little different than the STEM and rote learning they’re use to.


Sweats pushes our clothes towards our flesh, wet stains growing large and round near the most attractive bits of our bodies, that is the armpit and lower back. Five minutes out here, and now we smell as if we haven’t showered in days, despite the daily -sometimes twice daily- bathing rituals we take part in. We glide across a sandy field towards the school building. Large feet try to avoid tripping over the narrow steps as we go up and around. This staircase doesn’t quite spiral so much as it takes sudden, sharp turns. At last, we reach the classroom where the Avanti Fellows’ students wait for us.


The teenagers, all in 12th standard, sit clustered together towards the front of the room. Young men in collared button downs segregate themselves to a few tables. The rest of the desks are filled with young women. Their garb is far more diverse. It ranges from western dress to colorful kurtis, salwars, dupatas, to abayas and a mixture of the bunch. As we enter the classroom, some students wave and invite us in on their conversations. We say “hello,” “how are you?” and listen closely as they ask us questions about our lives. The small talk soon ends, when we split them into groups. One, Two, One, Two, they count off. Some students try swapping places to ensure they’d be in a group with their friends; others simply sneak into the other group when they think we aren’t looking.


Now we begin the workshops of the day. Every week we cover new subjects. Thus far topics have included poetry, environmental issues, public speaking and social entrepreneurship, just to name a few. Each lesson the students challenge us as we challenge them. This mutual learning process makes the fact that we are damp and reeking completely worth it. Especially, when a young woman writes a poem for the first time, and in it shares the struggles she’s faced in order to continue her education. Or when applause erupts after a student delivers a speech in perfect English on how to combat corruption in his society. It’s worth it because these students now have an opportunity to know other ways to learn, and luckily enough for us, they now have the opportunity to teach.


1 Apr

group photo cmu cmuq and bajaj

No one wants to admit when they are missing the comfort and security of home and family. I love India, travelling, the group, and the work we are doing. Honestly, I would not change where I am, but I do miss my family and friends at home. I think there is a lot to learn from being homesick.

Being away from home always reminds me of the true meaning of family. I have been an aunt since I was five years old. Family has always been a significant part of my life. Throughout my life I have always wanted to be defined as something more than just a “family person.” I always thought that being a family person meant that I was defined by my family, or that I can’t be my own person. This trip has made me realize that’s not true. I am a family person, but being a family person to me means that my mind works by thinking of families. Throughout my life I have created many families. I have my biological family, my parents, brother, sisters, nieces , nephews and extended family. I have my best friends in Pittsburgh, who are a second family to me. My family members are the ones who are always there for me no matter what. My love for my family at home has only increased while I am away.

Traveling has reminded me that family is what you make it. Our group has become a family. We don’t always get along. We bring out the best in each other, and sometimes we bring out the worst in each other. But at the end of the day we are all on a journey together and we are there for each other. Being a family is about understanding, supporting and accepting one another. I’ll always remember our “sharing night.” We formed such a strong sense of family as we sat at the ashram around a candle sharing music, stories, art, etc. That night we all went out of our way to understand each other, but since then we have all supported and accepted each other subconsciously.

We have created many families on this trip. We have created families with Akash and Suraj, the Bajaj Foundation, the Women’s Collaborative, the Visions students, the Olcott students, and the Avanti students. Families are communities where you love and respect each other. I feel so lucky to have not only made friends but also created families on this trip.

-Marie Avilez

In the Going

18 Mar

I have my head pressed against the car window and watch all of the activity outside on the street like I usually do. I watch a lot of things pass by… a funeral procession, two weddings, lots and lots of cows and goats and dogs and chickens, and people doing anything from chatting to eating to fighting to praying and everything in between. There’s also everything on the ground, like food, flowers, trash, poop, and shoes. And at any given time, people are yelling, kids are crying, music is playing, and cars are honking their horns. But there are also moments of stillness if I look closely, like a baby sleeping or a woman sitting quietly on the ground washing vegetables. And the whole time, the car is bouncing up and down, swerving all over the road, and speeding, braking, speeding, braking.


I read a wonderful piece of writing the other day by a friend who wrote “It’s not in the getting, it’s in the going.”

In a program like this and in a place like India, no one can count on getting. It’s all going, and in order for any of us to be happy, we have to learn to love the going. Get up, scarf down some breakfast, pile into the car, and go learn, teach, try, explore, speak, listen. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes all I want is to go back home to the familiar, but other times I experience something truly remarkable and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.

As a traveler in India, I am in a unique position to learn to love the going and set the getting aside. On top of the uncertainty and unpredictability of traveling in a new country, this is India, where it seems that getting is rarely guaranteed. Water, electricity, education, and even crop yields are all things to which, through our service, we are learning that access is often not a given. For me on this trip, the only given has been that nothing we do or see is ever what I expect it to be.

Nico has said that as a teacher, before loving the people you see your students becoming, you first must love the students as they are. Similarly, before we can shape and fully understand our visions for India in the future, we must first love India as it is. And the more we can love the process of working towards our goals, the more successful we’ll be.


It is a joy to see our small community both forming our own group identity and figuring out our role in so many different contexts (as teachers, students, peers, foreigners, young adults, etc). We’re learning to be flexible but resilient, open but questioning, and to dream big but act now. I feel so fortunate to be here with this group and the ideas I’m learning are ones that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

-Molly Berntsen

Village Volunteers

7 Mar

Village Volunteers are representatives from every corner of the Wardha district that function as intermediaries between citizens and the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation (KJBF). Our group held workshops with them to learn more about their work and recognize their critical role within KJBF.

People become Village Volunteers for a variety of reasons. Some hesitantly join at the urging of friends and family, while others jump at the chance to have a leadership role within KJBF. Whether shy or outgoing, they are selected because of their dedication and ability to work hard. Women, men. landowners and tribal members come together to guide water, farming, and microfinance initiatives within their villages.

Village Volunteers discuss the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions at workshop organized by CMU students.

Village Volunteers discuss the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions at a workshop organized by CMU students.

The program strengthens the Volunteers’ confidence, initiative, and public speaking abilities. Through mandatory leadership training, women like Sushna found “the courage to not only leave [their] village, but also speak in front of large groups of people. Prior to her involvement with the Baja Foundation, Susha claims she was unable to leave her home, let alone her village.”

Village Volunteers not only help run KJBF initiatives, but they are transforming citizen involvement within Wardha. Rebuilding the trust of villagers is key in a region that has suffered from government mismanagement and little outside assistance. Not surprisingly, villagers are initially skeptical of proposed KJBF projects: Farmers fear that KJBF might exploit their land, and microfinance group members have difficulty trusting one another with money. Volunteers allay these fears by “effectively communicating the goals and methods of KJBF and providing villages with an accessible support system.” This dedication and clarity helps to rebuild trust between KJBF and villagers so that projects will be embraced and cared for by the community.

The Village Volunteers are knowledgeable teachers to the Social Change Semester students. Not only does the program allocate critical on-the-ground support, it emphasizes to both Volunteers and villagers that they are valued members of KJBF.  As the Social Change Semester aspires to expand into year-round partnerships and involve more CMU students, it has to continue building support and trust amongst Wardha citizens. While this relationship has begun through our various workshops and field visits, the challenge is now to continue these interactions once we return to the United States.


All quotations are from the transcription notes of Alexandria Hernandez.