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On Mission Education

Sunday, 14 September 2014 | Ananya Borgohain | in Agenda

Every year, more and more members of ‘confused youngistan' are joining a silent revolution to remodel ‘regressive' India. ANANYA BORGOHAIN talks to some of these young guns to explore their zeal that reverberates with renewed, constructive vigour

In this era of globalised modernity, foreign markets, international education, and the glamour of the metropolises, a youth is expected to aspire to embrace all modern pleasures. Youths today are almost always accused of seeking instant gratification of wants. They are imagined to be ruthless, laidback and terse; any disagreeable opinion from their side is attributed to their “ill-mannered, unprofessional generation”.

However, amidst these clichés, there is another manifestation of youth — including the urban, English-speaking lot — that rises above the fads of junk food or the disposable dictums of yore. There is a reconciling Indianness which is gradually envisaging a real shining India, shining from the glorified creamy layers to the unprivileged ghettos, literally. Every year, an increasing number of graduates are discarding their earlier plans of fancy higher education or corporate jobs, and gravitating towards propelling education in the rural, unsung corners of the country.

Among the country’s most consequential fellowship programme for young students, the Teach for India (TFI) programme is arguably the most renowned. It is a two-year full-time paid programme wherein bright graduates and professionals are appointed as full-time teachers in under-resourced schools.

Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of TFI, says: “The idea for TFI was developed in 2006 when I was working along with a group of people to reform education in India. We came together to seek an innovative solution to end educational inequity in the country. During this time, we met with Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America, to discuss the feasibility of adapting Teach For America’s model in the Indian context.  When we engaged with a number of stakeholders within the Government, in academic institutions and corporations, we felt encouraged by the favourable response we received. A few months later, a 12-week study was launched by McKinsey & Company to determine the feasibility of implementing this model in India. The study concluded favourably and at the end of the process, a plan to place the first cohort of Fellows as well as a plan to grow the movement to scale for the next five years was put in place.”

Mistri has had an international upbringing. She grew up in various countries, and believes, “Children are the same everywhere around the world. They don’t know race, religion or borders. When I was 18 and studying at Tufts University in the UK, I came to India on a holiday. It was an ordinary day at a busy Mumbai traffic signal, looking into the eyes of some street children at my window, when something inside me told me this is what I should do. I started by exploring Mumbai — going into jails and police stations, train stations and the red light area, and soon walked into the sprawling slum community where I found my purpose. I knew I would work hard; I would stay back in India.”

The screening process is meticulous, and less than 10 per cent of total applicants are selected. TFI recruits Fellows who have demonstrated potential and excellent leadership skills in their academic or professional backgrounds. The Fellows undergo a gruelling five-week training schedule where they learn the theoretical aspects of being an excellent teacher as well as the practical aspects required in teaching for four weeks in summer schools. The Fellows also constantly meet their programme managers and the training concerns classroom management, teaching methodologies and planning effectively for lessons.

In the classrooms, children work in groups. One might see the teachers leading students in chants or songs to help them learn. About the response to the programme, Mistri says, “This year, we will have roughly 31,000 children in our classrooms, 900 Fellows and 700 alumni. In the next two years, we aim to have 1,350 Fellows in eight cities and 1,600 alumni. Additionally, we will work on advocacy in public-private partnerships, alternative teacher certification, and spreading our vision of an excellent education through the inspired education conferences and the Maya musical. We will launch an open-source teacher training portal and support our alumni to have significant impact in the cities that we are currently in.” The second deadline to apply for the programme expires on October 29.

Shreya Sinha got a degree in literature from Delhi University in 2012. She believes joining the programme changed her life. She recalls, “When I was teaching in Mumbai in my first year, several of my girls were enlisted for scholarships. I happened to take one of them for a personal interview and background check. When the interviewer asked my student what her most impactful moment/memory was, the child recited word for word a ‘read aloud’ lesson that I had taught about three months ago in class. She narrated it just the way I had, with so much confidence and sincerity that I was thrown aback. It made me teary-eyed and for the first time in my life I realised the impact I had truly made on another individual”.

But for somebody like Shreya, who belongs to a metro city like Delhi, developing the bond with the rural unprivileged children required her own unlearning process. She says, “Making the children relate to you is critical, as most of them come from broken families and the only way to maximise your impact is to build strong inter-personal relationships with each of your students and develop a clear understanding of each other. The Fellowship is a leadership development programme, as well as a teacher development programme. Not only has it trained me in all facets of teaching, but our intense training process also involves a huge amount of reflection, critical thinking, the know-how of planning and execution, and having a strong understanding of core values and mindsets with which we undertake a task.”

Another Fellow of the programme, Devanik Saha, who graduated from VIT in 2011, gave up his plans of pursuing Masters in the UK and started his own organisation to promote education for girls, the Delhi-based Unnayan. He shares, “During college, I volunteered with some NGOs and was involved with some development projects. Hence, I got deeply interested in the development sector. Working in an IT firm without any purpose didn’t make sense to me. I was looking for a structured opportunity where I could do meaningful work. Unnayan was meant for urban areas. Initially, it was extremely difficult to get settled as the environment was a tough one to work in. However, kids are the best thing on planet and their attachment towards you makes you forget everything. I used to play many games and engaged in activities with them apart from teaching so I could connect with them.”

He continues, “On the very first day, only six girls out of a class of 30 had turned up. It was disappointing to see such a low attendance level. I was curious and checked the attendance register kept by the previous teacher where I discovered that the average attendance rate was a mere 21.06 per cent. I was demoralised by the poor turnout, but it reinforced the importance of being there.”

However, it has not been a bed of roses for Saha who had to face struggle against his family in the course of the journey: “They never approved of my decision to join TFI, hence there were many arguments and fights which hampered my work at the school. But I have always tried to maintain my focus. Additionally, my school was a very tough one to work in. My classroom didn’t have electricity neither did the school have any washroom or drinking water facilities. Thus, infrastructural issues posed a big challenge. Financially, I was earning less than my peers from college but work satisfaction kept me going.” Nevertheless, his plans to develop Unnayan have only grown over the years.

He divulges, “Eventually, I want to continue in education and expand Unnayan. Currently, I am working in a strategy consulting firm for creating market-based solutions to developmental issues. I would like to develop management and business skills, which I will leverage later to re-launch Unnayan. Unnayan is not active due to a severe lack of funds and the existing centre got closed due to regulatory issues. However, we hope to re-launch it soon in a different community by raising funding.”

Not many know of another Fellowship Programme, which is only three years old, but has received tremendous responses and a flood of applications from all across the country. The Young India fellowship (YIF) is a one-year multidisciplinary post-graduate programme, which admits 100 young students from across the country and trains them in a rich and diverse set of subjects and perspectives, delivered by some of the finest teachers from around the globe.

Launched in 2011 by the International Federation for Research and Education (IFRE) in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, it has also partnered with Carleton College, one of America’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges, and Sciences Po, a leading university in France and Europe.

Shivangi Pareek, from the batch of 2012-2013, says, “YIF has equipped me with an ability to always think from more than one perspective. Through the one year at YIF, one works on several projects with a different team every time, and hence a new set of unique people with different backgrounds. This diversity in the classroom and the experience of working as a team makes one appreciate difference and respect the various ways of seeing. The curriculum is like a pastiche of disciplines. It is an opportunity to learn varied subjects like statistics and Shakespeare in the same classroom. This exposure to a diverse set of disciplines is a unique experience that I got through the fellowship. Coming from an education system which focuses on a very narrow, linear and ‘specialisation’ approach to education, this emphasis on expansive liberal arts education equips one with an open mind, new ways of thinking, an increased curiosity and a heightened self-scrutiny.”

The one year gave many of us an opportunity to be critical of our learnings, the confidence to unlearn and break free from our narrow, discipline(d) trainings and do things which transcend these boundaries, adds Shivangi.

After the Fellowship, she joined an organisation called Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a grass-roots initiatives for water and livelihood security, working mainly in the central Indian tribal belt. The organisation is working on the creation of location-specific solutions to water problems combined with low-cost, low-risk agriculture, other nature-based livelihoods and women-led institution-centred microfinance and such institutions of people which can result in sustained higher incomes and empowered communities in the area.

“I was specifically involved with a livelihoods project called Kumbaya. Kumbaya is a project that empowers tribal men, women and most importantly, differently abled people, by providing them livelihood opportunities through trainings in machine-stitching and also marketing products made by these people,” Shivangi explains.

But it is not just general formal school education which is being nourished. The Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) project too seeks to find ways to reach out to under-represented communities, intending to present law as a desirable career option for them. Its founder Shamnad Basheer is a reputed and well-known name among students of law all across the country. He joined the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, in November 2008 as the first Ministry of Human Resource Development Chaired Professor in Intellectual Property law. Prior to this, he was the Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC. A graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Basheer went on to do his post-graduate studies at the University of Oxford. He says, “The eminent legal institutions in India have become increasingly elitist and expensive (Rs15 lakh for a degree) and there is a noticeable lack of diversity within the student population. The IDIA scholars are identified and guided through the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) process. Our scholars struggle in the first one to two years of law school, given that they come from backgrounds that are so vastly different than that of many of their peers. Which is why the scholarship policies at the various law schools are so skewed since they insist on “merit” (read academic performance) right in the first year. And there is no way that someone from a really underprivileged background will perform well on day one against their peers, the majority of whom are from affluent backgrounds and schools. However, our scholars find their feet after a while and have done us proud. Two of our scholars represented their universities in debates and moots abroad and it has been a very proud moment for us. Others have excelled in extracurricular activities such as music and sports. And two of them are almost at the top of their batches academically.”

Basheer continues, “The IDIA project is run on the ground by passionate law students across various law schools. While this in many ways is the key USP of the programme, it is also the biggest challenge. In terms of finding ways to tap into this wonderful student passion when they have a high-pressured law school environment and multiple commitments. But it’s been working good so far and we’ve started providing additional incentives to students who perform well in IDIA, including tying up with law firms, domestic and global, to offer them internships and prizes. So far, we’ve found a decent level of support for IDIA from within the legal community. But given the fact that legal education is very expensive at the premier law schools these days, unless this support ramps up in geometrical progression each year, we will soon find it difficult to stay afloat.”

In all academic robustness, a neo-liberal education arrangement that nurtures the needy with  cosmopolitan requirements soars higher than monopolistic consumption and knowledge.

Besides the ones mentioned above, the country has several other Fellowship programmes such as the Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellowship, under which one is exposed to the policy-making process in one’s capacity to assist a Member of Parliament. Or the Gandhi Fellowship, a two-year rural residential programme that equips young people with social leadership skills, or the Teach India campaign in similar lines.

Avinash Upadhyaya, a 23-year-old engineer, moved to Delhi from the finance capital of the country, Mumbai, after having served in one of the highest-paying companies in the world. He said, “My life was relaxed and not much active. I began to feel that the corporate world was dumbing me down. I am still managing a private startup company, but I am now focusing on social development. We brainstorm about how solar energy could be resourceful for rural India.” Most of the popular online magazines and student journals are run by young college graduates all over India. From metro reads to serious archival works, the culture of reading and ideating is still strongly inculcated in them. Interestingly, some are even dropping out of college to pursue their dreams.

For instance, Canada-based Samarth Chandola dropped out of college in his final year in 2009 and went to Freie University, Germany, as an Erasmus scholar. He then moved base to Canada where in 2013 he founded Victory Square Games, where he now serves as the CEO and creative lead. He spearheaded the production of 22 ultra casual games for Microsoft and his company won a Top 10 Small Business BC award for ‘Best Workplace’. He also became a recipient of the 2014 BC Business Top 30 under 30 Award, within a year of the company’s foundation.

Every year, more and more members of ‘confused youngistan’ are joining a silent revolution to remodel ‘regressive’ India with an identification that reverberates with renewed vigour.

ananyapioneer@gmail.com

 
 
 

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