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Graduate student receives Fulbright grant to conduct anthropology research in India

Erin Riggs Fulbright


Article Written By: Elyssa Diamond '18

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a nationally competitive, fully funded fellowship that provides recent graduates and graduate students the opportunity to travel abroad to a foreign country to study, conduct research or teach English as a foreign language. Erin Riggs, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Binghamton University, was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Student Grant and is currently conducting research in India.

Erin Riggs, an archaeologist and PhD candidate in Binghamton University's Anthropology Department, is spending the next several months in Delhi, India, as a Fulbright scholar studying the refugee resettlement housing areas that developed in the wake of the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan.

After India and Pakistan gained independence from the British, millions were displaced as Muslims left for Pakistan, defined as a new Islamic homeland, and Hindus and Sikhs moved toward India, established as a secular state. In Delhi, India's capital, incoming refugees found shelter in diverse housing types, including temporary relief camps, government built resettlement colonies, government employee quarters, and evacuee properties (homes freshly vacated by Muslims who had left for Pakistan).

During her nine months abroad, Riggs is studying the material landscapes of these areas, as well as interviewing families who live in these resettlement homes. Her research considers how the allotments provided have continued to shape families' lives and sense of national belonging over the course of generations.

"My plan was originally to cover over 30 different refugee resettlement areas," she said. "Through pedestrian survey, I'm looking at buildings and types of resettlement situations in each area, as well as doing more in-depth interviews with residents about their experiences."

Although Riggs is primarily interested in material evidence, she sometimes finds the person before she finds the building. All of her research assistants have volunteered for the 1947 Partition Archive in the past, so they are experienced oral historians who can point her in the direction of relevant people to speak with. She said that she also has learned the best places to find older individuals, who are the most helpful towards her research, and she will sometimes simply knock on doors.

"People are really welcoming," she said. "It's not rare that you will meet someone in the street and they'll invite you into their home and they'll talk to you for hours and stuff you full of cookies and soda and chai."

Riggs first became interested in the region and her area of study as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in anthropology and geography. Her undergraduate research, as well as her master's thesis, which she completed at Binghamton University, focused on displacement as it related to Japanese internment camps.

She gained familiarity with India as an undergraduate through her volunteer work as an oral historian interviewing people in the Bay Area who had experienced the partition, as well as through friends who were from Delhi. Riggs said she initially hesitated researching India because she had no personal connection to the region, but she encourages future researchers to not let that insecurity stop them.

"Don't let the fact that you don't have any personal connection to a topic or a place limit you in what you envision yourself doing," Riggs said. "Definitely as an undergraduate student, I never would have envisioned myself trying to accomplish what I am trying to accomplish right now, but if you are dedicated to something and you don't give up, you'll be amazed at how far you go."

Riggs also suggests that students who are interested in applying to scholarships like the Fulbright program speak with the Undergraduate Research Center and Office of External Scholarships to aid with the application process.

"I definitely would contact the [Office of External Scholarships]. They were especially helpful," Riggs said. "I definitely don't think I would have had as much of a shot without using a lot of help and advice from them."

Between her experience as a Fulbright scholar and her previous language study in India as a Critical Language Scholarship recipient, Riggs has laid down roots in the region. Not to mention, her new husband, whom she met in upstate New York but married during her Fulbright tenure, is originally from Kolkata. She ultimately wants to live and work as a professor in the United States, but hopes to continue her research in India.

"I definitely envision myself doing research in India throughout my career, so probably I'll be coming back for a lot of summers," Riggs said. "And [my husband] has family here, so obviously we're going to have to visit back for that reason as well."

However, even if she has the chance to return in the future, Riggs knows she will never have an opportunity like the Fulbright again.

"It's just been such a special experience because never before in my life, and if I'm able to continue in academia like I want to, never again, will I have so much time to just think about my interests independently," she said. "The creative autonomy is really unique. Not many positions allow you to have that."

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Last Updated: 2/20/18