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During the winter of 2011, Hannah Dobie spent time in India working with Operation Smile. That experience prompted her to delay her college admission to Wake Forest University and take a gap year and return to India to work with the same organization. Hannah came home to Nashville over the holidays and shared her experiences with StyleBlueprint.

Are you originally from Nashville?

Yes, I am originally from Nashville. And I just read in the NYTimes the other day that it is THE place to be!

You made the decision to defer college to go work with Operation Smile in India, why did you make that decision?

I made this decision because I wanted to learn outside of the classroom. I wanted to take a break from doing rigorous schoolwork and focus on something totally different. The year between high school and college is a great time to explore. Whether students are exploring their own city or the world, it’s the perfect opportunity to grow and learn in a different way. As my senior year ended, I simply thought, why not? I had been very involved with Operation Smile throughout high school and had been a student volunteer on an Operation Smile medical mission to Guwahati, India, earlier in my senior year. I loved every minute of that trip. So, I contacted some people who were still working in Guwahati to see if there was a job I could fill. Now, I find myself in India doing something that I dreamed of doing.

Can you give us a snapshot of what your day looks like at Operation Smile?

I work at the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre (GC4), which is a mini-hospital devoted to repairing cleft lips and cleft palates in the state of Assam. So far, this centre has completed more than 4,000 surgeries and each day, and that number grows larger. I work primarily as the research coordinator, which means I coordinate research projects so that cleft care can be improved around the world. In addition to that, I am developing a social media program to promote what we do at GC4 in Guwahati. I am also developing a student program for local high school students so that they can raise awareness and funds for Operation Smile and volunteer their time to fulfill GC4’s needs.

About every other month I go on medical missions to various places in India where I screen patients and help with medical records. Medical missions involve international volunteers coming to remote locations to repair cleft lips and cleft palates.

Day to day, I wake up at 5:30 am and go to a yoga class (when in India…) where I find myself chanting words I do not know and being encouraged to make yoga a lifestyle. I either walk to work or ride a scooter. I am at work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. At night, I practice Hindi, which I am learning while living here.

On weekends, I work with the Pratyasha Foundation, which was founded by my flat mate. Each Sunday, we make food for 85 kids who live in the very large slum nearby. We take the food into the slum and serve it in front of a makeshift Hindu temple that is part of their community. This is the favorite part of my work here because I really get to interact with children in their environment. They live in very poor conditions, but they have a lot of joy. I have gotten very close to some of the kids. In November, we provided shoes to all 85 children. Next month, the plan is that I will start taking as many of them as I can to school for the first time. The hope is that we can enhance their lives beyond the Sunday meal.

I have made many friends here, and on the weekends I go out with friends or visit their homes and their families. The people are so generous and are always welcoming me to their homes. Usually they feed me so much that my stomach feels like it will burst! Other than these meals, I usually cook my own food and have gotten really good at making my own hummus… yummy.

What talents do you bring to Operation Smile?

I don’t consider these talents, but I believe I bring energy, passion and an open mind to my work here. People at the hospital call me “LOL” (laugh out loud) because I love to laugh and laugh often. If in just a small way, I hope I am a positive force in what happens here.

Describe the town or city you live in?

I live in Guwahati, Assam, which is in northeast India. It is very different from Nashville. The best way I can describe it is “a sensory overload.” At all times, the senses are being assaulted. You hear the cars honking constantly; the city smells awful; you can taste the dust in the air; you feel the crush of hundreds of people walking around you and staring at you. Living here makes it abundantly clear that I am only one of 6.2 billion people in this world.

Can you share with us some misconceptions that Americans may have about India?

I think there is a perception that people in India are really, really poor and that it’s possible to get very sick to your stomach here. Unfortunately, neither are misconceptions. Both are true.

What resonates with you the most about the work you do?

This quote from Mother Theresa describes perfectly what resonates with me after living and working here: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Love really does make the world go round, and it can only help to be kind every chance you get.

Do you have a mentor?

Since being here, I have met so many people whom I would consider mentors.  I honestly learn something from every person I meet here – from every walk of life.

Can you share a piece of valuable advice you have been given?

My pediatrician never failed to tell me to wear a helmet. We often travel by scooter here.  And with the crazy traffic, the crazy drivers, the absence of traffic lights and the occasional cow in the road, I heed that advice.

For kids that are considering a gap year, what advice would you give them?

Find something that you are really passionate about and pursue it. If it is the outdoors, find something that challenges you that way. You can learn so much from doing something different for an extended period of time. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself and go outside of your comfort zone. That’s what makes it such an exciting and incredible learning experience.

What are some of your favorite things to do when you come back to Nashville?

I was back for two weeks in December. I drank milk, ate meat, took hot showers and enjoyed the absence of honking in the streets.

Are there some words of wisdom you can share with juniors and seniors going through the college admission process?

I don’t know that I have a lot of wisdom to impart on college admissions just yet. But I would encourage people to try to keep a healthy perspective during what can be a grueling process and to keep in mind that college is just a stop along the way.

What book are you reading right now?

I am reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I recommend this book to each and every one of you. It is an incredible, non-fiction description of life in the biggest slum in Mumbai and will really open your eyes. You will feel as if you are right in the middle of it all. She has an incredible way of telling stories and I cannot express how much I wish everyone would read this.

What are three things you can’t live without (excluding God, Family and friends?)

  • Peanut butter, which accounted for most of the allotted baggage weight traveling here
  • Technology that keeps me connected to family and friends around the world; and
  • BBC news, which keeps me up to date on world news, in English!

Thank you Hannah! And thank you Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful FACES photographs you deliver each week!

If you are interested in reading more about one of Hannah’s favorite stories, “Bare Feet, A Trash Bag, some Pepsi and Love,” click here.  And, to see more of Ashley’s photography, visit her website:

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