On a classroom floor in Bangalore, India, more than 300 students from seven grade levels are sitting, crammed together. They listen to the noises drifting from a nearby playground where cows, stray dogs and vehicles pass through. It is here, in these open-air classrooms which lack enough desks and space for the children, that Weinberg junior Rajni Chandrasekhar would realize her passion for education reform.
As a volunteer for Asha for Education, a non-profit organization that works to improve conditions in the Chandranagar Government Primary School, Chandrasekhar has spent the past two summers in India writing a report for Asha. Her work involved evaluating the school and making suggestions for an “enrichment-based” approach to volunteering, including weekly dance and theatre workshops with the students.
Inspired by that experience, she developed a project proposal to participate as a delegate in this year’s Global Engagement Summit, hosted and sponsored by Northwestern University this week.
Now in its third year, the Global Engagement Summit will feature 40 workshops and 55 staff members on an expanded and more ambitious platform. Chandrasekhar and other delegates from American and international universities will attend workshops, and discuss and get advice on projects they have planned on global issues, such as health, education, community development and cross-cultural communication.
”Each of these workshops will relate to someone’s project in some way. You will find a lot of connections among people,” added Chandrasekhar, who looks forward to drawing from other participants’ experiences.
“The summit is really about bringing different perspectives together,” said Weinberg senior Ryan Pederson, the co-director of the summit. “It’s more dynamic and exciting than any other event at Northwestern.”
Originally called the International Youth Volunteerism Summit, the name was switched to “reflect on a broader focus than just volunteering” and produce “more sustainable projects,” Pederson added.
For Chandrasekhar’s project in India, for instance, non-governmental organizations’ involvement in schools is growing but research and documentation about their impact are still scarce. Even groups with good intentions, such as Asha, can end up failing to help if they overlook the basic needs and dynamics of local schools, Chandrasekhar said.
”I learnt about my passion for educational reform the first time I went there, and I reaffirmed it after that. It was incredibly demoralizing, but I also gained a less-abstract understanding,” said Chandrasekhar, who initially felt “tossed into an environment” she didn’t know much about.
Accommodated in a neighborhood in Bangalore, Chandranagar is like a Lilliputian world where multi-story housing complexes and high-tech giants are taking over. On its way to becoming an Indian Silicon Valley, Bangalore, the capital of the Karnataka state, is known for its “software industry, globalization and rapid development, but is also quite reflective of other parts of India,” Chandrasekhar said.
Government schools like Chandranagar are some of India’s many faces, yet the ones that only the “low castes,” the “extremely poor” and the “malnourished” tend to see, she said. In a country known for its long-standing caste system, there is also a hierarchy in learning, Chandrasekhar added. While anyone with enough finances would send their children to private schools, the Indian government still caters to 80 percent of primary school students.
“They are known to be the worst schools in India, especially the urban schools,” Chandrasekhar said. “These are some of the most challenging schooling situations you could ever have.”
Even though they are provided with free uniforms and textbooks, these students, many of whom are first-generation learners, draw from an underfunded and often disorganized schooling system. During her first visit, Chandrasekhar noticed a chronic need for more classroom space and personal attention from teachers. When she came back the following summer, the situation hadn’t changed and may have even deteriorated.
With the Global Engagement Summit, Chandrasekhar, one of 60 delegates admitted based on the quality of their project proposals, expects to go “beyond abstractions”.
“Fundamentally we [delegates] are all connected in what we do,” she said, “We may not always find specific answers to the problems we identify, but it’s really useful to just be provoked to think about this.”
But according to Chandrasekhar, who plans to compile more resources and research, and engage different actors in a forum for India’s government education, her project’s goals are beyond the powers of a single person.
“This is a project that is going to last a lifetime, beyond my lifetime,” she said, adding that after two summers as a volunteer in India, she has “barely scratched the surface.”