“Sit back down and finish what’s on your plate!” Now more than ever, my mom’s strict but sincere voice often rings through my head, an indirect, repeated reminder of the simple values that define me.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hail from a modest family. The Mahajan clan, including those of us in the United States as well as the majority back in India, live a lifestyle whose cultural and religious influences have played an influential hand in our upbringings. Being religious has allowed our culture to play an influential hand in our upbringings, and as a result, we’ve learned to define ourselves by a set of few, core values that we live and breathe by. Values like, family comes first. Simple things like, eat whatever’s on your plate. And perhaps most importantly, a line my parents always seemed to find a way to drill into my head: “don’t take things for granted.”

Trust me when I say that I’ve taken this to heart. Witnessing the poverty of India plenty of times firsthand has definitely helped, and with each trip I make, my sense of privilege matures with me. Just this last summer, I had the opportunity to get closer with a lot of the children from my father’s native village. Every trip, we like to bring our cousins chocolate, clothes, and school supplies. It’s the least we could do for their kind hospitality every visit.  On this last particular trip, however, my eyes opened up to something I had never seen before.

One morning, one of my cousins tugged on my shirt as I sat on the couch. “I want to go share the gifts with my friends,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

Taken aback, I followed him outside. For the next couple hours, we roamed the village, visiting all the small kids of the neighborhood and delivering pencils, notebooks, and candy to each and every one. I saw families living in small huts with aluminum sheet ceilings. Children without proper beds to sleep on. Holes in the ground designated as toilets. But above all this adversity, I saw gratitude and happiness written on the face of each and every kid I met. Regardless of their background, in that moment of time they felt truly special.

As we made our way back home, I couldn’t help but ask my cousin about his generosity. “We got the gifts for you guys back home,” I told him. “Why’d you share them?”

He took a second, and then responded: “I’m lucky,” he said. He told me what he has that others don’t. Pencils. Clean clothes. Parents who can afford a tutor, so he can do well in school. Three meals a day. “I have everything I’d want,” he told me. “The other kids need this more than I do.”

And so, with the remarkable experiences I’ve had in my father’s village always floating in my mind, I believe in the unparalleled power of being grateful. As I wake up from my bed every morning to attend class, as part of a prestigious honors program at an amazing university in the home of the American dream, I can’t help but feel blessed. Having witnessed the relative nature of poverty firsthand, I remain content with what I have, no matter what situation I may ever find myself in. After all, with a loving family and great friends, a world-class education, and the rest of life’s necessities, what more could I ask for?

For me, living with gratitude leads to a life of happiness, and that’s richer than all the chocolate and pencils in the world.

This I believe.