Bring the change; Become the change: SBI Youth for India Fellowship

By auther pic. Faiza Ruksar Arif

April 25, 2020

Bring the change; Become the change: SBI Youth for India Fellowship

Fellow Aditya learning about farming methods and best practices

I walk into the building, my heart drumming furiously against my chest. My stomach is a knotted mess of nerves and excitement. I am sweating profusely. I pull myself together and walk into the room that reads: "SBI Youth for India: Welcome 2020-21 batch of Fellows!" This is it, I think to myself, the start of something new. As I make my way through the sea of people, I am greeted by friendly faces and nervous smiles. I am filled with excitement, excitement to explore what the future holds for me. New places, new people and new perspectives. And it starts today.

SBI Youth for India (SBI YFI) is a unique, Indian rural development fellowship program initiated by SBI, funded and managed by the SBI Foundation in partnership with reputed NGOs of the country. It provides a framework for India's bright young minds to join hands with rural communities, empathize with their struggles and connect with their aspirations. The selected fellows from some of the top institutes/ corporates, work with experienced NGOs on challenging development projects. Every year, as a new batch joins the diverse community of Youth for India fellows, they bring with themselves a renewed sense of hope and aspirations. Each individual that becomes a part of this community is ardently determined to make a difference, irrespective of the scale at which they can do it. Across 13-months, the fellows assess some of the most pressing challenges being faced by rural India and use their experience, background, and zeal to build feasible solutions to them.

Launched in 2011, with 27 fellows in the first cohort, the fellowship is now in its 7th batch with 52 fellows currently pursuing their fellowship journey at 35 rural locations across 12 states in India. Over the last decade, the fellowship has given way to a vibrant network of over 300 alumni that are today working in diverse fields, 70% of whom continue to be actively involved in the development sector. It is noteworthy to mention that the fellowship experience has given rise to over 30 Alumni-led ventures and initiatives.


Fellow Avantika promotes food security in schools

The SBI-YFI fellowship has a rigorous application process, that entails filling out an online application followed by the online assessment to screen candidates and find those who would be the right fit. The selected candidates undergo an in-person interview with the selection committee across multiple locations. The selected candidates receive a confirmation mail and are then invited to attend 'Aarambh' – the induction ceremony marks the beginning of the fellows' transformative journey and where they receive insight into burning questions on development by experts from the industry and interact with the alumni body. The fellows undergo a week-long orientation specifically curated to build perspective and get an overview of the development sector. Post orientation, the fellows spend time at the NGO center to understand the scope of their work. Based on their interest and skill set, they are assigned a location, domain, and local guardian. The fellows then spend the next few weeks understanding the existing realities of the community and eventually finalize a program area, program objectives and outline an action plan. When approved by the SBI team and implementing NGO the fellow then spends 13 months of the fellowship focussed on implementation. It is the challenge of finding solutions through limited resources that define the role of the fellows. YFI allows the fellows to work across a plethora of social issues including- education, health, environmental protection, food security, rural livelihood, traditional crafts, women empowerment, self-governance, social entrepreneurship, technology, and alternate energy.

The cohort of fellows is dynamic and diverse, with people from all walks of life. To some, the fellowship is a stepping stone to their career goals, while others find purpose and meaning through these enriching experiences on the ground. Sameer, a fellow from the 2016-17 batch took a leap of faith to quit his well-paying corporate job and join SBI YFI Fellowship, which he believes was one of the best things to have happened to him.  Aubrey, belonging to the 2017-18 batch was armed with a few years' experiences in the corporate sector and an MBA degree but was convinced his calling lay elsewhere. Komal on the hand was an environmental science graduate looking to build perspective- and the fellowship was the perfect way to do so. And so, they set off, on a journey that not only changed the rural landscape but transformed them as people.


Fellows Aubrey and Sameer are all smiles as they document their experiences on the field

In the duration of her time at YFI, Komal worked with school children and also trained frontline health workers to bring about a behavioral change among the community to promote hygienic practicesalong with BAIF. Aubrey collaborated on a livelihood project in Madhya Pradesh with Aga Khan Rural Support Program (India). The project aimed to create employment opportunities, mostly for women, through a soap-making project from cow and goat milk. He shares an experience from the early days on the project. "We set up a stall at a local village market but failed to make even a single sale. However, women weren't disappointed. Their enthusiasm refused to die down. Many instances like that showed me why rural India is a goldmine. Because you tend to work closely with them, you can engage in conversations by taking them into confidence that will help them challenge the sad reality that they live in."

All three fellows experienced a paradigmatic shift in their world views and carved their niche within the rural development landscape. Sameer continued in Gram Vikas as a full-time employee after completing the fellowship and secured funding of INR 20 lakhs for 5 years from NITI Aayog. He created an Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL) under the Atal Innovation Mission and has impacted 1200 tribal kids in Gram Vikas Schools through his work. Sameer initiated and currently heads the Science and Innovation Program of Gram Vikas as STEM Coordinator and aims to expand it to other schools as well. He has also been awarded the Aryabhatta Award in 2018 for his contributions. Post fellowship, Komal took her work on menstrual health forward and began working with many stakeholders i.e. sanitary pad manufacturers, CSOs, district, and state governments, etc on menstrual health and hygiene. She was recently awarded Young Innovators Award alongside another, SBI YFI alumni. Like Komal, Aubrey is currently carrying forward his fellowship project of making milk-based bathing bars through a village-centric ownership model; which he describes in his own words is based on the principle of "the village giving back to itself."


Fellows' work recognized and appreciated as they receive an award by Rahul Bose.

Sameer, Komal, and Aubrey are a handful of names amidst the ocean of changemakers YFI has groomed and supported. The Fellowship provides a framework for India's best young minds to join hands with rural communities, empathize with their struggles and catalyze their needs and aspirations. Avantika Gandhi acurrent fellowat YFI says it best, "The fellowship is like a window opening to the limitless horizon of togetherness and happiness, the quest is to be open to change. From North India to South India, everything changed- language, food, traditions, everything! And when I took these changes as an opportunity, I started learning new things and growing closer to people. From being an outsider to now being considered family, changes are still happening. And the expedition is to welcome these changes and grow together with people"

The fellowship has allowed youngsters to unlock their passion through social action and operates on the premise of: unlearning by doing and collaborating to build and sustain. Pushed out of one’s comfort zone, fellows are urged to not just think, but to ponder. To not just take away experiences, but to give back. To not just see the stark realities but to feel them with the community. To not just hear stories about the plight of the poor but to listen to their needs. To not just learn from theory but experience practically. To not just relate to others but absorb meanings from interactions. To not just change living conditions but transform polarized realities.

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Faiza Ruksar Arif is a content specialist and researcher based in Bangalore who has worked extensively on curating curriculum and educational programs for adolescents in Telangana. With a Master’s degree in Gender Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Faiza is on a mission to improve social realities by equipping women and other marginalized sections, with improved access to health, education and livelihood opportunities. She also dabbles in artwork and is passionate about issues pertaining to mental health and minority politics.


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