North­eastern under­grad­uate Matt Shutzer ven­tured halfway around the world to study infra­struc­ture prob­lems and write grant appli­ca­tions in Kala­handi, one of India’s most drought-​​stricken agri­cul­tural dis­tricts — and when the six-​​month co-​​op was com­plete and he was back on campus, only one thought ran through his mind: How he could return.

All I can think about is get­ting back there,” said the junior his­tory major. “Kala­handi is one of the most beau­tiful places I’ve ever seen, but the people live in almost unimag­in­able, abject poverty.

My goal is to return to see how steps taken with the orga­ni­za­tion I worked with are being imple­mented to help the people obtain a better stan­dard of living.”

Shutzer worked for Gram Vikas (in Hindi, “Vil­lage Devel­op­ment”), a 30-​​year-​​old non­govern­mental orga­ni­za­tion striving to improve habi­tats of tribal devel­op­ments in India. He began work as a grant writer to help bring devel­op­ment money to the dis­trict, par­tic­u­larly for infra­struc­ture projects.

But Shutzer’s interest in the plight of the people he met there quickly moved him to dig deeper, working to assess overall san­i­tary and living con­di­tions of the Adi­vasi people.

The fre­quency of drought in the area, inland from India’s north­eastern coast­line, adversely affects water sup­plies, crops, and the overall health of the inhabitants.

Tra­di­tional hunter-​​gatherers in the lowest class of the Indian caste system, the vil­lagers he met in Kala­handi inter­nal­ized the feeling of being among “the untouch­ables” in Indian society. “They very much had the feeling that they were at the lowest levels of class,” he said.

Trying to help vil­lagers envi­sion a better life for them­selves, Shutzer par­tic­i­pated in reg­ular focus groups, helping to intro­duce new con­cepts that would lead to better living stan­dards, such as mod­ern­izing agri­cul­tural methods

We intro­duced cash crops—like man­goes, guava, cashews and corn—that they could eat and also sell,” he said.

Shutzer also worked with his orga­ni­za­tion to devise a plan to build struc­tures for clean, piped drinking water, and to create improved irri­ga­tion for crops.

The expe­ri­ence went beyond the work, and became, for Shutzer, personal.

We lived in these com­mu­ni­ties. We lived in their homes. We cooked with them and ate with them,” he said. “In another vil­lage, we lived in a gov­ern­ment school house where the roof leaked on us — we slept in pud­dles and had to deal with dogs and mosquitoes.”

As a his­tory major, he became fas­ci­nated with broader issues affecting the people he mon­i­tored, including the value of reli­gion in their lives and politics.

When he grad­u­ates in May 2010, Shutzer intends to return to India to con­tinue the work he started this past spring, pos­sibly by founding his own non­govern­mental organization.

I can’t wait to get back,” he said. “I want to help be an advo­cate for people who are at the lowest rung of society.”