Mahima Menghani '21
Unexpected Lessons from my Advanced Study Grant
Every year the International Studies Program nominates each member of its sophomore class for the Advanced Study Grant, a summer research funding opportunity provided by Boston College. The program gives up to $3,000 to students who propose summer projects that supplement their fields of study and advance their education beyond what can be achieved in a classroom alone. This past spring, the University Fellowships Committee awarded me a grant for my project titled “The Evolution of Geriatric Care in an Industrialized India.” My proposal sought to understand why a rise in demand for nursing homes has occurred alongside economic development, and why the industry has begun to succeed in India, a collectivist society that traditionally values close family ties and has long stigmatized old-age homes. I wanted to know: What does large-scale development entail for existing norms pertaining to elderly care in India, and why do families choose to place their loved ones in old-age homes, rather than seeking alternatives like in-home care? Broad socioeconomic questions guided my project, and I expected to find a narrower focus once I traveled to India and began my first experience with fieldwork.
For two weeks in August, I lived in Vadodara, a city of over two million people in the western state of Gujarat. My plans were limited from the start, as the Fellowships Committee does not approve human-subject research without IRB approval, which could take months to obtain and often proves unnecessary for students to achieve their research goals through the ASG. This limitation forced me to approach my questions from different angles, which meant interviewing nursing home administrators and employees, rather than the residents themselves. It also meant that I needed to redefine my project and accept that while I would not gain the perspective of those residing in old-age homes, I could be creative and turn to journalists, NGOs, and other proxies in order to understand why Indian parents end up in nursing homes and how attitudes towards senior care have changed over time.
After arriving in India, I also struggled with scheduling interviews and convincing nursing home directors to trust my intentions. Understandably, due to a lack of legal protection for Indian businesses, along with my somewhat invasive interview questions, I was frequently met with annoyance and rejection when attempting to reach out to workers in the industry, who worried that I would capitalize on demand and steal their business models, or that I aimed to expose corrupt practices. Although I felt frustrated and nervous that I wouldn’t meet my expectations for the trip, the occasional failures taught me more about the complex social context of the country and encouraged me to modify my method for building rapport with those willing to be involved in my project. I revised my questions several times, made sure to clearly outline the purpose of my project from the beginning, and expressed sincere gratitude for any cooperation. The process took time, but I ended up gaining many valuable insights and potential avenues for further research on the subject.
While I may not have answered all of my ambitious questions or gathered enough evidence to publish a scholarly paper, the ASG taught me the realities of fieldwork and how to adapt when faced with some inevitable challenges abroad. I now feel more confident taking this experience and using the knowledge that I gained to continue to search for answers, eventually turning my project into a more focused senior thesis. I will also be presenting my findings at the annual Boston College Undergraduate Research Symposium, which will be held in the spring semester.