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Alumni Outreach and India’s Social Movements: A Summer, Virtually, at the Kluge Center

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This is a guest post by Kluge Center intern Julia Bliss.

Interning for the Kluge Center this summer has been one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my life. As a junior studying studio art and anthropology at the University of Vermont, I find great joy and satisfaction in research.

Growing up on the outskirts of Washington, DC, I was aware of the great resources of the Library of Congress, but I was not aware of the Kluge Center until I was scrolling through the internships advertised by the Library. When I saw that the work was research-oriented and involved assisting a scholar, I knew I had to apply.

During my time at the University of Vermont, I have investigated maternal mortality, mummification, and Northern Hindu temple motifs. Although these areas may seem different from one another, they all connect to my desire to understand the human condition more fully. This summer I was lucky enough to explore my interests in a new way through the opportunity for a full-time virtual internship during the pandemic.

I worked on two projects, one with Dr. Michael Collins, Kluge Fellow in Anthropology from the University of Gottingen, and the other with Dr. Janna Deitz, Political Scientist and Kluge Center program specialist in outreach and partnerships, working on alumni engagement. While these projects focused on separate aspects of the Kluge Center, together they provided me with a rich experience.

The project I worked on with Dr. Collins, “From Boycotts to Ballots: Democracy and Social Minorities in Modern India,” fit well with my background in anthropology. (Read an interview with Collins on his work here.) Most of my work on this assignment concerned investigating the trends and causes of violence towards the Dalit population in the state of Tamil Nadu. Specifically, I focused on a group called the Dalit Panthers, an organization modeled on the Black Panthers. This association between the US and Indian activists led me to a significant observation: issues of police brutality, socioeconomic disparities, and overwhelming injustice in India are quite similar to those experienced by oppressed populations in the United States.

While it is important to acknowledge the differences (as with caste versus racism), finding similarities between these struggles helped me to recognize some of the basic driving forces behind inequality. Prior to this project, I had researched India primarily through the lens of Hinduism and historical artwork. Learning about contemporary Indian society from this socioeconomic and political perspective and being able to witness the lasting influence of Hinduism changed the way I view the relationships among religion, discrimination, and culture.

The project I collaborated with Dr. Deitz on involved alumni outreach and promotion. I retrieved email and social media information from Kluge scholars, entered information into spreadsheets, scanned the news for mentions of alumni, crafted tweets to promote these news pieces, and created profiles. I updated scholarly email information using a random number generator, a little math, and a lot of time.

While data entry was not exciting, making sure we had the correct contact information for Kluge scholars ensures we can stay in touch with them. I also reached out to several fellows from around the world who had been at Kluge during the past 20 years to complete profiles that the center can use in its promotion work. I found this whole process fulfilling and valuable, particularly because I was able to see the immense influence Kluge scholars have globally.

Previously, I considered academia to be removed from everyday experience and maybe not so relevant, but my work on this project helped me realize the vast cultural, political, and economic impact that scholars have on the world. Another great takeaway from this assignment was an introduction to the professional working environment. Understanding how to formulate spreadsheets to get the information you need, maintain accurate contact information, and communicate with others in a virtual environment are invaluable skills.

The ability to be thorough, efficient, and maintain positive working relationships, like those between the Kluge Center and alumni, is not only helpful from a career standpoint, but also a personal one. As a woman it can sometimes be difficult to discuss your achievements, for fear of being seen as boastful. However, I have learned that it is important to be confident in presenting your work and in reaching out to others.

Overall, I enjoyed these projects not only because of the content, but also because of the exceptional scholars I was lucky enough to work with. Both Dr. Collins and Dr. Deitz are good examples of the people at the Kluge Center who convey information effectively. Whenever I felt lost or overwhelmed, I knew I could reach out and ask questions. This rang true for all of the other Kluge staff I encountered as well. I believe it takes an extraordinary institution to ensure that their employees and interns feel valued, included, and cared for. I will carry the knowledge and skills I gained from this experience with me as I begin my senior year this fall.

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