A Brief Update in a Strange Time

The last few months have been rather eventful on my end as I spent my first four months of the lockdown in India, wrapped up my job in Mumbai, and packed up my apartment in a frenzied 24-hour period, to relocate back to the States! I have news about an exciting transition to share, which is that I'll be starting my Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School this fall! 

I am excited about this next step to further my ability to advocate for the world's most silenced communities. My two years at Aangan India were everything I could ever ask for in a job. I had the chance to work up close and personal with policymakers around the country to protect children at risk of trafficking and abuse, surrounded by colleagues who empowered young people to lead in a way that allowed me to grow professionally and personally beyond what I thought was possible. 

The organization's founder Suparna and I recently published this piece on the increased risk of domestic violence as countries around the world "locked down," and Aangan was able to provide immediate relief to about 11,000 families across the country in the wake of the pandemic. I look forward to staying in touch with the organization and allowing the lessons I learned there to guide my time in policy school.

For now, I've moved back to D.C. and we're all feeling very grateful to be living under the same roof again. Priya will be starting her junior year online as well, so we've got a full house!

I hope you and all those you care about are safe during these confusing times. 

My Move to Mumbai: A Year In Review

Imagine having a job where every day, you do something you've never done before.

I can say without exaggeration that this is what working at Aangan has been. I knew that working for an organization that engages deeply with community in an international context would be an important learning experience, but I truly couldn't have pictured how challenging, exhilarating, and transformative it would be.

Literally my first month on the job I met with the Director General of Police for the state of Rajasthan to present our child safety work to him and work to create buy-in with his department (as part of a project we run to increase trust between communities and police in child harm hotspots in India). Engaging with Indian bureaucracy has been so fascinating and for all we hear about corruption in government systems, I have met so many passionate civil servants and government officials grateful for good work being done and keen to support us.

I'm lucky enough to have transitioned from focusing on just Rajasthan to leading our team working on government advocacy for all 7 states we work in across the country. (Oops...I'm staying here a year longer than the original plan!) The new role means I've been able to travel to Varanasi, Patna, and Bharatpur so far this year to engage with government stakeholders -- and my goal is to spend time in all of our cities before the year is through.

And since I choose opportunities based on the people I'll get to work with, I should add: I've had an absolute blast working alongside our founder Suparna Gupta every day. I had a strong hunch that this would be the case based on the conversation that convinced me to move to India, and it's been eye-opening to observe the way she constantly models efficiency, candidness, and treating her employees as peers in a way I sometimes find hard to fathom. Whoever said "never meet your heroes" hasn't met my boss.

I've also been able to push my boundaries as a writer and communications nerd this year. I've published lessons learned from our work in Jharkhand in Outlook, and shared insights from Aangan's work with the UN Foundation for a 3D Program report called "Working Together for Girls' and Women's Safety in Public Spaces: Lessons from India." (The biggest rush was seeing my name in the list of contributors!) In between writing, of course, I've been geeking out over Aangan's viral #WomenWorking4Women and #EndTraffickingTogether campaigns.


On a personal level, the move to Mumbai was...rough. Like solidly rough. I've had months of on and off minor sickness, a couple tiny little surgeries, only one mini concussion, and an overall hard time adjusting to the climate, distance from my college community, identity questions about myself as an Indian-American, etc. etc. I miss New York fiercely pretty much all the time. My fitness is the textbook definition of abysmal, as I've developed something I call "NGO bod" -- living in a country where consuming raw produce isn't the best idea and I spend ~3 hours a day in a car has quite dilapidated the healthy streak I'd had going these past few years...but I'm definitely working on it!

All of this was expected, and despite these baby hiccups I stand by the fact that moving to India was probably the best decision of my life. Almost everything I do started off as a challenge, from figuring out how to give rickshaw directions to remembering how to make friends again. It's been genuinely frustrating and isolating, and also the learning opportunity of a lifetime. I hope to work on international development and making life better for the world's most vulnerable people throughout my life, and I can think of no better way to have dived in than this past year.

Why the Gill Sisters Are Big Fans of the "Gap Year"

As an ever-fervent proponent of the gap year, I am proud to say that my little sister Priya just finished up an awesome year off from college! We thought we'd take some time sharing our experiences, in case they are helpful for other students thinking of doing the same. 

I took my gap year before college and Priya took hers between her sophomore and junior years of college, so our answers to these four frequently asked questions may have some answers for those considering taking time off at any stage. We also want to acknowledge that the decision to take a gap year comes with a great deal of privilege, and we are lucky to have had the support of our families and friends as we traveled and explored opportunities around the world.

Q1: Why did you decide to take a gap year?

Ratna: I was honestly pretty burnt out from high school. I remembering having a moment one day in the middle of cramming for AP exams and applying to colleges when it dawned on me that as far as I could foresee, the next four years would look very similar to the last...12 years. I was fortunate to have started school a year early, so I graduated at age 17 and felt like there was nothing to "lose" in terms of time -- so at that moment, I promised myself that I would find a way to take some significant time off before starting college. (That said, even if I had been 18, I don't think it really would have made a big difference whether I went to college at 18 or 19 -- the extra year of maturity and outside-of-school experience would have helped, if anything.) I also had very little idea about what I wanted to study in college, and I thought that exploring working in a number of different fields within the social and environmental impact spaces might be a good way to get some exposure to different issue areas and potential work trajectories. It helped that my college strongly encouraged this decision when I shared my proposal.

Priya: I realized that I was not nearly as inspired or fulfilled in college as I wanted to be. I initially tried to remedy this over the summer after freshman year, and again several times in the midst of my semesters. While I was sometimes able to temporarily revitalize this inspiration and fulfillment, it never lasted. I decided finally during the second semester of my sophomore year that it was time for me to do what my peers who have felt similarly encouraged me to do — take time off. My initial plan was to take one semester off, but I extended my time off to one year as I wanted to continue to contribute to and grow through my work.

Q2: What did you go on your gap year?

Priya: I spent my year working for FLO, a co-living startup in Pune, India. As one of the four pillars of this venture, I had a short-lived stint as an intern and soon became Head of Communications. While my focus was marketing and communications, I played a role in strategy, operations, and even interior design. Prior to my gap year, I was pretty conflicted about what I could foresee myself doing after graduation, but my experience at FLO was crucial in informing my goals for the future. I realized that I want to work in an environment like FLO, where I can think both critically and creatively, where my ideas and thoughts are valued, and where I feel constantly supported by my team. I am super excited to continue to be engaged with FLO. Work aside, I spent the year playing squash, practicing yoga, gymming religiously, reading, traveling to Dubai and Italy, and chasing all stray dogs in sight.

Ratna: I worked for Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a network of shelters for homeless youth in DC, from September to December; then spent a few months in India shadowing the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra in Mumbai and working at Gyaan Ghar; stayed at home in Virginia for a few months teaching in the Latin department (and learning ceramics!) at Flint Hill; and ended the year with just over a month in Colombia interning with The Nature Conservancy. There are pages and pages detailing every day of my gap year on this blog because I wanted to document every day and make sure I was being productive and making time to reflect -- so keeping this blog was also one of the things I did!

Q3: How was your gap year different from what you expected?

Priya: My gap year was WILDLY different from my expectations! My initial time off plan was to take one semester off and spend a month working a service job in Virginia (my hometown), two months backpacking in Europe, and the remainder of the time working in Pune, India. My biggest fear upon embarking on my time off was that I’d be lonely away from school and my friends -- that in Virginia I’d get stir crazy with no similarly aged peers in town, in Europe I’d have few fleeting interactions with strangers, and that in India I’d be completely on my own, barring colleagues toward whom I assumed I’d be apathetic. What ended up happening was that while I was visiting family in India in August, I decided to rearrange my gap year plans and first spend some time working in India so as to avoid circuitous travel. I absolutely loved my work and life so much so that I canned my remaining plans and extended my time off. Regarding the anticipated loneliness, while I made a conscious effort to be comfortable alone and to grow through this independence, I simultaneously and serendipitously ended up forming the most meaningful relationships imaginable. While I was confident that time off would be transformative, I never would have predicted that it would be the happiest and least lonely phase of my life.

Ratna: I think my gap year ended up being a lot lonelier than I expected. One of the hardest parts for me was when all of my friends from high school moved to college and were starting to settle in, take new classes, and meet new people, and I felt like I was very much in the same place. One of the best ways to mitigate that was to make a plan. I knew that roughly, I wanted to spend part of the year learning more about environmental issues and urban development and part of the year working with children. I wanted to spend part of it closer to my family in India and part of it exploring a new part of the world. Once I had those goals in place, I started looking for opportunities in the sectors I was interested in, in the places I wanted to visit. (And once I started traveling, I met a host of new people who made my year incredible!) I kept my plans pretty flexible throughout, which was important for me because I think a huge part of the beauty of taking a gap year is to kind of be able to pick up and do whatever you want, without too much prior planning. For example, in the middle of my time in Mumbai, a family friend suggested that I do a 10-day silent meditation retreat. My first thought was, "No! That will upset my plans to spend time with my family!" But then I figured it would be very hard to find another time that I could pick up and meditate under a pagoda for a week and a half, and it ended up being one of the best experiences I had during my year, that is still very applicable and powerful for me today.

Q4: What was your biggest takeaway from your gap year?

Ratna: That said, I think the loneliness at different points during the year made me more independent. Being able to look back and be like, "Oh, I did that on my own at age 18," has been a major source of solace during other challenging times in college and beyond. One of my other goals for the year was to learn to give less value to scores, rankings, awards, and other external validators as benchmarks of my self-worth. I would say the year helped a ton with that (perhaps a little too much!) and changed the perspective with which I approached college. The people I choose to surround myself with has been my biggest focus since my gap year in 2012, and I don't think there could be a better learning! In terms of what I learned about my career goals, I think the experience showed me that I could see myself working almost anywhere in the nonprofit space. The most impactful experiences were the ones I had working directly with people (at Sasha Bruce in DC, at my school in India, and getting to work with one of my favorite teachers in Virginia), and I think that has definitely influenced the work I've chosen to do after college.

Priya: The most important lessons I learned on my gap year were:
  1. It’s important to surround yourself only with people you absolutely adore — you don’t owe anyone else your time. 
  2. Keep things simple and eliminate from your life clutter in the form of things, people, and pastimes. 
  3. Do things because you derive genuine fulfillment from them. 
  4. Real happiness comes from what you actively do — not from who people think you are.  
It has been a year of discovering and putting these principles into practice every day, and I hope to take these lessons back with me to college!


Did you take a gap year too? Are you thinking of taking one and unsure where to start? Share your thoughts and questions here!