Intense is the word to describe our arrival in India. India is a country of intensity. With a population of over a billion people, it is always crowded. Traffic is constant. The amount and extent of the poverty that can’t help but be witnessed in any major city in India is overwhelming. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this intensity India is a beautiful and inspiring place. Crowds of people everywhere means there is always a smiling face ready to help. Avoiding traffic provides more opportunities to enjoy the view or walk. And the poverty serves as a call to action.
In cities as big and sprawling as the ones we visited in India, there is a great need for NGO support. We were lucky to be able to visit one of the most widespread and prominent NGOs in India: Pratham. Pratham works to provide education opportunities for marginalized children in some of the most underserved communities in the cities they work in. While we had heard some sobering statistics about the state of Indian public, or government, schools, Pratham mainly works with children who haven’t even made it that far. These are children who don’t go to school and work instead. Who are rescued from child slavery rackets. Who have quite literally been forgotten by society. These are children for whom Pratham is a last hope.
Pratham is a 20 year old NGO with a young, startup spirit. At each level of the organization, volunteers are bursting with ideas of how to better achieve their missioN: Every child in school, and every child learning well. Programs such as the Pratham Council for Vulnerable Children (PCVC) and the Pratham Learning Centers are products of Pratham innovation.
PCVC is a program that reaches deep into the lives of children in poverty. PCVC volunteers literally go into the slums, locate children who have been forced into labor, identify and train local women to become teachers, and extract these children from work to provide them with an education. We were lucky enough to see PCVC in action in Mumbai. Our visit was graciously arranged by Pratham’s communications team. We met our guide, Viral at a railway station and drove past a sprawling landfill, where we could see women and children parsing through trash. We stepped out of the car and were overwhelmed with the stench of sewage and waste. Inside the humble single room center we interviewed the two local volunteer teachers before the children arrived. They shared their personal stories of being recruited to teach, of fighting for children to be released from work, of visiting homes to get children to come to school. To us, fighting to get a child even the most basic access to education is heroic. For these Pratham women, it is their every-day.
Soon the children piled in to begin class. The arrived, some unkempt, and some without shoes. But all were bright-eyed in greeting us, “Hello, Didi (sister). Thank you, Didi!” Whatever the center lacked in resources – the teachers and students made up for in passion and dedication.
We were again blown away at our Pratham visit in Delhi, where we visited a Learning Center in a slum on the outskirts of the city. We journeyed about an hour via metro into what appeared to be a totally different world. Our hosts, Arshi and Sam, welcomed us at the metro stop. Together we walked through crowded alleyways and past street vendors to reach the Pratham Learning Center. It was a four-room complex full of color, fun educational diagrams, bustling with energetic children and Western volunteers. We had coincidentally arrived on the last day of a visit from students of the American School of Hague, there on a one-week volunteer trip. For months they had fundraised and planned for the trip, bringing specific projects to do with the students. We interviewed them, local volunteers, and students.
We found enthusiasm at every corner. The international visitors were spilling with stories from their week, telling us that the Pratham students were showing up *early* to school to see their foreign visitors. The local volunteers, Kanij and Mehrunissa, had been working for Pratham for 9 years – and were still as energetic as the “one-weekers.” I was curious in particular about impact: what can volunteers do in just a few days? Can they make any difference? Everyone responded with a resounding, “Yes.” They can bring an energy and optimism that motivates the students to come to school, to practice their English, or to better their computer skills so they can keep in touch. It’s a burst of energy that can fuel the work for the long-haul.
The international students said their goodbyes (filled with a lot of hugging and adorable, energetic waving), and we went for a comfortable chai with our hosts. We sat for an extra hour, chatting about the spirit of Pratham and development work in India and abroad. We left impressed not only by the critical work Pratham is doing but the vitality of the organization.
Pratham has taken on a huge challenge with many complexities that we were only able to glimpse in our short visits. The world of the Mumbai slum differed greatly from the Learning Center in Delhi. But they shared a sense of hope, inspired by Pratham volunteers. They bring – sometimes with the help of international volunteers, but most of all with their local teachers – boundless energy and optimism for improvement. Pratham is leading the movement to ensure children are in school, learning well, and have the tools not only to overcome their personal hardships, but to thrive.
We arrived at the Akanksha Foundation offices on the Monday morning of an Indian holiday, but the staff was in full swing. We found the office buzzing with meetings behind glass doors, surrounded by student artwork and inspirational quotes about education and reform. We were there to meet Nina Sawhney, a fellow UCSD Alum (’10) and current teacher at the Akanksha Foundation, an organization leading India’s charter school reform movement.
Nina introduced us months ago to Akanksha in this gapper profile, giving us a brief look into Akanksha’s mission of education reform for India. Akanksha consists of three interconnected programs: The School Project, Akanksha Centers and Programs, and Art for Akanksha. Together, Akanksha is bringing cutting edge math, English, values and art education to Mumbai and Pune.
Thanks to Nina, we knew these basics about Akanksha before visiting. She worked to set up our visit with Alisha Varma, another young US college grad (Northwestern ’11). We met Alisha on a Saturday for a tour of some Akanksha classes. We sat down with Alisha, who shared with us some of these statistics motivating Akanksha’s work:
- The Indian illiteracy rate stands at 70%.
- 50% of primary aged children will not pass out of the 5th grade.
- 90% of primary aged children will not pass out of the 10th grade.
- 5th grader read at an average of 2nd grade level.
- 80% of Akanksha Centers and Programs students go on to college.
What Alisha proved to us then was that Akanksha was an organization whose work is closely informed by policy and research. But what moved me was the way each Akanksha staff member and volunteer connected personally and passionately with the vision of a more educated child. We spent that day shadowing Akanksha classes, which were full of over-enthusiastic children – clearly itching to learn and practice their English. (You may have seen a sampling of Akanksha children here: telling you to GIVE YOUR GAP!)
After seeing the Akanksha model in action, we headed to the Akanksha offices for one last set of interviews with staff and volunteers. We all look back fondly at meeting Babita, a former Akanksha student who now works full time for the organization. We asked her (as we ask all our Gappers!) she answered passionately, “Everything that I am, everything I have come to be – is because of Akanksha.”
Our final interview of the day was with Akanksha’s new CEO Vandana Goyal. I want to share an excerpt from her interview verbatim:
“As a young person who is just graduated from college or just a few years out of college, what you’re looking for is a challenge and what you’re looking for is that even though you don’t have a lot of experience, even though you may not have accumulated this wealth of skills, that you can still contribute in a really meaningful way. And for me, when I first came to Akanksha, it was that opportunity that got me so excited and engaged in the work from day one. So the opportunity that I think Akanksha provides any international volunteer or employee is exactly that. To be exposed to India’s greatest challenges, and the world’s greatest challenges upfront, every day. But more importantly to feel like one person can actually change things. Can change the reality of children’s lives, can change the reality of a community. And to have that experience as a young person is a very profound transformational life experience. It’s changed my life and I’ve seen it change the lives of our volunteers at Akanksha.
Akanksha was founded by a 20-year old woman, built by young college grads, and has developed into one of India’s front running education reform nonprofits. It seems impossible to imagine an organization more in line with the vision of GiveYourGap. Akanksha has combined young idealism with critical thought. It blends policy research with grassroots action, and takes its progressive stance on reform to a positive, fruitful partnership with the India government. It cares deeply about its individual students, about India, and it’s waiting for you to join the movement.
Read more at: http://www.akanksha.org/
Name: Caryn Oppenheim
School: Bowdoin College
Type of Work: Medical/Public Health, Environment/Conservation, Education, Community Development, Arts, Language, Human Rights
Region: North America, South America, Middle East, Asia
Length of stay: 3-6 months
Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I interned for a grassroots NGO, EduCARE India, in rural Punjab, India for three months. EduCARE India’s vision is to promote pathways to intellectual freedom, social justice, community welfare, economic liberty, and sustainable development for individuals, families and social groups working to achieve their rationalized life dreams.
Share a favorite memory.
Hannah Wolkwitz, coordinator of health day, spent weeks organizing transportation, supervision, and free check-ups with local hospitals for the Trash Pickers community in Adampur. The health day was realized several days before her departure from EduCARE. The Trash Pickers community suffer from constant health problems due to poor sanitation, water, and other conditions in which they live. The goal for the health day was to complete a general physical for the majority of the community, numbering around thirty people. An English student and friend of EduCARE’s, Sukhjinder Singh, extended a helping hand, as usual, by transporting, in multiple shifts, the community to both locations. After initial disorganization and delay at the Lion’s Club during the first shift, interns developed a system to oversee that each person would be attended to. At the Civil Hospital the children bravely beared finger pricks. I sat with several of the adorable little ones in my lap, while they got their fingers pricked. The community’s dog, Tiger, accompanied them for moral support, at times over-extending that support by lounging in the lobby. Although my main responsibilities as an intern did not involve work with the Trash Picker and Snake Charmer migrant communities, I enjoyed visiting their camps and assisting with education and sanitation lessons. After a long exhausting day witnessing the joy of the children, the personalities of the buffalos, kittens, puppies, goats, and chickens, and the resilience and modesty of the adults rejuvenated my spirit. Even without language sharing we could communicate in smiles, play, and hand gestures. I will always remember Krishan, a young bright boy from the community, journeying to our office before I left and sitting in my chair with me. He had drawn a mustache on his face—a face I will not forget.
What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
The opportunity of interning for EduCARE allowed me to gain more practical grassroots experience related to many different overlapping social projects. The independence and responsibility I enjoyed in several social fields made me realize I should broaden my future career scope and consider social work. My job role as the Communications Manager has renewed my interest in Communications and encouraged me to look for a more creative approach to a career. I have improved my team work skills and gained knowledge of what makes an organization successful. In addition, I developed adaptation skills due to living and working in a culturally and physically challenging environment. I have always valued clear communication and witnessed the importance of it firsthand this summer in my internship.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Living and working in a climate, culture, and NGO management system different than one’s own country required adjustments. In rural Punjab transportation is an adventure in and of itself. Many see foreigners and money as synonymous and see foreign women as candy. It took time to get used to existing uncomfortably in terms of the heat, bugs, and water supply. Cultural concepts on bill paying and communication are treated differently in India as well. Despite these experiences, I consider my time in India one of my most worthwhile adventures. When I think of India I think of vibrant colors, decorative fabrics, resilient and playful people, breathtaking vistas, and life changing wildlife. My fellow interns, who inspire me with their travels, interests, and dedication, remain one of my most valued keepsakes.
Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Travel the road less traveled and do so with an open mind, flexibility, and as few expectations as possible. It is to your advantage to work abroad with a feeling that you may offer something to the program, but more likely your experience will change you. Learn as much as you can and document your time through pictures, blogs, writing, and other forums. If you are fortunate enough to be able to do some type of gap experience take full advantage of all the people and places you connect with— time moves quickly. Future employers may value the skill sets and knowledge that you developed.
Name, Age:Mugdha Golwalkar, 20
University, Major:UC San Diego, Human Biology
Length of stay:Flexible
Type of Work:Medical/Public Health, Environment/Conservation , Education, Community Development, Arts, Childcare
Tell us about the nonprofit/social business you work for:
Project RISHI (Rural Indian Social and Healthcare Improvement) is a student-run organization that works during the year to raise funds for several sustainable projects, which we then carry out on a two-week trip to a leprosy colony in rural Maharastra, India. We have chapters at UC San Diego, UCLA, Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Davis, and Northwestern University currently, but we’re always looking to expand! You can check out the website at www.projectrishi.org or specifically the UCSD chapter at www.facebook.com/groups/ucsdprojectrishi or follow us on Twitter @SDProjectRISHI for updates!
How did you find your position?
I heard about the first GBM through another organization on the UCSD campus called Sangam, and went from there!
What’s your typical day like?
When we visit, we have a fair amount of flexibility with the kinds of work we can help with there. I woke up every day at 5 am to wrap leprosy wounds in the hospital, and then spent most of the day either working on our projects, teaching dance lessons to disabled girls, teaching/helping out at the kindergarten and nursery, meeting with officials to assess the kind of project that the colony and neighboring villages still need that we could help with, and working in the pathology lab taking blood samples from patients and testing them for malaria. There are tons of opportunities if you take the initiative to ask about them.
What kind of people do you work with?
This colony does get other organizations that visit it, so you will be working with natives as well as international people most of the time. The majority of the administration speaks English, so language is not a big problem. The ages of people we worked with varied a lot depending on what each person chose get involved in in the community. Most people in the colony are minimally educated, but often knowledgable in the specific trades they have learned.
What are your living accommodations?
The colony has a guest house, which is generally a small room with several cots and an attached bathroom with western style toilet and eastern style baths (out of buckets). They aren’t the most comfortable accommodations, and sometimes there are bugs, but they do provide all the meals and the experience more than makes up for the adjustment. Internet is available at a central location, but it’s pretty slow and limited as this is an extremely rural area.
What do you do in your free time?
In my free time, we learned sign language form some of the locals, we went hiking and biking around the area. Sometimes we would go out into the main city to the market or to little local restaurants.
Share a favorite memory or story from your experience!
I got to teach Indian classical dance to girls affected by disabilities or leprosy! Honestly, they were so sweet, and they welcomed me with open arms and called me their “older sister” even though I was younger than some of them! They wanted us to teach them some western dance, but then spent the whole time making fun of me and my other friend who taught them when we tried to show them a latin dance to Shakira. They’re definitely friends I’m never going to forget, and they’re a big part of why I want to go back.
How are you financing your time?
I’m paying for the trip mainly out of my own funds, but with some help from my parents. The trip we take through Project RISHI generally costs $1500 and lasts for 2 weeks, but the leprosy colony we stay at would gladly welcome volunteers who want to stay longer, and it wouldn’t be too much more expensive.
What kind of special skills do you need to do your job?
Do you feel like you are making a positive, critical impact on the global community?
Yes, I do. I feel like outside the trip, I’m spreading awareness about leprosy, which for a completely curable disease that 95% of the population is immune to, is IMMENSELY stigmatized. And on the trip itself, I can tell I’m really helping by volunteering around the community, because they really need the manpower.
How do you see this experience fitting into your long-term goals?
I have always wanted to work in public health, preferably in a rural community as a career, but my biggest problem was that I wasn’t sure if I could handle the conditions. I’m applying to Masters in Public Health programs right now, and I’m thinking about medical school afterward, so this experience really solidified my future goals and showed me that I can handle an experience like this, and probably can handle rural medicine, more long-term.
Do you have any advice for prospective gap-givers?
Take the initiative! Most communities you will work in are really open to having volunteers. Ask what you can do, and it doesn’t have to be overt work, like in a hospital or a school. Teaching the locals a new game or babysitting for someone for a night so they can have a night off can be just as rewarding!
Are you blogging about your work or travel? How can we stay in touch?
Our blog is at projectrishi.wordpress.com but as we didn’t have very stable internet there, our blogging was a little limited. Feel free to comment and ask questions though!
Would you be willing to take questions from potential Gappers?