The Agoura Hills native has been living in India since January and said that because she’s an American and stands out in the crowd, locals are frequently asking her to pose for selfies.“There’s always selfies. I can’t walk down the street without people asking for one, it’s that bad,” Risko said. “It’s a good way to meet people but it’s a lot of photos.”
Risko didn’t go to India as a tourist. She’s taking part in a study-abroad program through Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where she’s a junior. She was studying religion and biology and said a growing interest in public health led her to consider a semester abroad.
“I found this program in India that focused on public health specifically, community action, and that’s what interested me,” Risko said. “(I thought) India would be such a mind-opening experience, so different than anything I had experienced before.”She spent three months based in New Delhi with a class of 15 students. During this time, she lived with a host family, studied Hindi and learned about public health issues such as pollution and water quality. As part of the program she worked with local organizations to gain a better understanding of how policies and public health initiatives are carried out in the community
For the last month of the trip, students do an independent study project on a subject that interests them. Risko moved to Uttarakhand in northern India so she could conduct interviews and study the quality and availability of water and its relationship to religious worship. She contacted local organizations and public servants and compiled her findings in a 30-page report.
“People in the villages were explaining to me how they worship natural springs,” Risko said. “There’s certain uses for the water, certain places near the spring where you can bathe, where you can wash clothes. It’s all very culturally signifi- cant. Water quality and reduction of availability has made religious worship even more important. It’s also an issue for the community, for their health and access to water.”
Risko’s mother, Lola Stone, said she was concerned when her daughter told her she wanted to spend a semester in India.
“They were going to New Delhi, and that’s been in the news with the air quality and also with attacks on young women,” Stone said. “She got there and told me immediately that she felt safe with the host family and she was with a well-organized group, so I was happy at that point. She’s done a lot of traveling within India, so it’s all been good.”
Risko was also concerned at first—people warned her about the country’s pollution and the prevalence of disease. But she found none of those concerns were valid. She said the most troubling part of the trip has been crossing the street because traffic is unpredictable.
Risko said she had a period of adjustment after she got to New Delhi, but there was never a point where she thought she’d made a mistake in going.
“At the beginning (of the trip) there was a ton of hand-holding. (Staff) would walk us to the subway, tell us what not to eat, what time to be home, all that,” Risko said. “But they’d slowly let us explore the city on our own. And then, for the independent study project, it was really, ‘you’re on your own.’ I (would) have to check in twice a week but otherwise, (I was on my own.)”
She’s comfortable speaking Hindi but said she can only have basic conversations. When conducting research for her independent study project she had a translator to help her with interviews, but there was a week when she was completely on her own. Even during that time, she wasn’t entirely alone.
“The sense of generosity of people was just overwhelming,” Risko said. “Anyone’s home I went into, stranger or friend, even though I couldn’t speak the language I could tell I was appreciated there. I was always given chai and snacks and asked about my life. I really felt like, even though I was such an outsider, I felt like I was part of the family, and that was amazing.”
Risko is set to return to the United States on May 19. She’s got mixed feelings about her homecoming—she said she’s ready to come home but will miss living in India. She said she plans to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship so she can do research project in a foreign country and possibly return to India.
She jokes that she’ll have reverse culture shock on her arrival in the states and that certain aspects of Indian culture may stay with her forever. She said people there have a different perception of time than those in western cultures— their day is not segmented into different tasks based on the time of day. Schedules are much more fluid, something Risko adapted to in her five months away. There’s even a name for it.
“‘Indian stretchable time’ is definitely a thing,” Risko said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be on time for something again.”