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Indian Summer

Cynthia Rann ’17 spent the summer in Bangalore, India, as a Cultural Vistas fellow, interning with Habitat for Humanity. Her time there has reinforced her passion for helping others, and has shed light on her own personal story.

By Hilary Bentman

(Note: Italicized sections are drawn from Cynthia Rann’s Cultural Vistas blog)

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Cynthia Rann '17

Even as a child, Cynthia Rann could feel the absence. Where others had family stories to share, she had none.

The truth was too painful, the loss too real. There was only silence. And the Albright College senior knew not to push for answers.

…All my life a canvas has been painted depicting my family’s life full of pain, lost lives, poverty and empty spaces left for me to fill on my own.

Years before she was born, Rann’s family – her parents and eldest siblings – fled their home in Cambodia after the brutal Khmer Rouge seized control of the country and began perpetrating a genocide that would eventually claim the lives of nearly 2 million people, or more than 20 percent of Cambodia’s population.

Fleeing with the clothes on their back, escaping into the dark night, paying people to help—that is what I know.

That is all Rann knows.

But she saw a way to shed some light on those dark, empty spaces, while also pursuing her passion for helping others.

Rann would seek answers in India.

Maybe just maybe, living in India would help me understand what it is I want: to fill in my family’s stories too bleak to uncover and to see the wounds too deep to heal.

This past summer, Rann, an international business major, was one of 12 students nationwide awarded a competitive Cultural Vistas Fellowship for an eight-week summer internship and cultural immersion experience in India, Argentina or Germany. 

The fully-funded fellowship, according to Cultural Vistas, “aims to provide American students from groups historically underrepresented in international programs with the unique opportunity to advance their career goals, develop global competencies, and experience life in another culture.”

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Rann (center) hands out food at a government school in India.

Long-fascinated with the subcontinent, Rann chose India and spent her time in Bangalore interning with Habitat for Humanity India, which builds homes, improves sanitation and responds to disasters.

Rann split her time between conducting corporate social responsibility data research, and overseeing Habitat volunteers working to improve schools and construct houses in impoverished areas.

Rann knows firsthand what it means to struggle financially, to worry about necessities and only dream of luxuries.

There was never time for my parents to learn English because they were making sure my siblings and I had a roof over our heads and food to eat. For the floor that was also a bed by dark. For the clothes that were passed down from person to person or turned into other useful items. For indoor traps that caught rodents at night were the norm. For a stressful childhood that made it difficult to recall the good. To my surroundings filled with people trying to survive on a few dollars a week.

But Rann was reared in hope – hope for a better future, not just for herself, but for others. Her desire to work in India was borne from this ideal.

“I know what it’s like not to have much,” she says. “But there are people who have less than you. Poverty is not just in our own home. It’s out there in the world.”

The past president of Albright’s Student Government Association was an eyewitness to global poverty last spring when she joined the College’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Haiti. Rann and her fellow students helped build and sustain drinking wells.

“In Haiti, I realized what’s important – family and love and being there, in the present,” she says.

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The streets of Bangalore

On the streets of Bangalore, nicknamed the Silicon Valley of India, Rann discovered a world of stark contrasts – high-tech industry and high-rise buildings alongside slums of deep-seated, intergenerational poverty, where plumbing was scarce but trash piles abundant.

There were beggars in the streets, children working instead of learning, and people dying because they couldn’t reach a hospital.

But Rann also found beauty in this place – the smell of jasmine that filled rooms, the ancient palaces alit at night, and the children she met at the schools where Habitat volunteers worked. Though she did not look like them, the children embraced her and called her “sister” in their native language.

“I don’t think they saw color. They just saw someone who was there to help,” says Rann.

Her time in India has led Rann to “realize the importance of daily moments, to not be on your phone so much. ‘Put your head up. Talk to me.’”

Saying goodbye to India was difficult, but Rann left even more inspired to help others. After graduation, she hopes to work in the field of social responsibility, either for a corporation or non-governmental organization, preferably overseas.

When Rann returned home and shared photographs of India with her mother, something unexpected happened. The images sparked her mother to open up, ever so slightly, about her life in Cambodia.

Maybe, just maybe, Rann’s empty spaces are starting to fill.

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