Students share college skills at ashram

Even a child left by the side of the road in India by parents who do not have the resources to take care of her wants a higher education.

But getting that education is not easy for someone raised in an orphanage with very limited resources.

So four students in CLAS are trying to figure out how to help her and others like her get into college.

The students, working under the aegis of the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Rights, held by history faculty member Amii Omara-Otunnu, visited India in January and are committed to trying to help the 3,000 students in a private school in Chennai, a semi-rural town in southeastern India near Sri Lanka.

The trip was led by Anusuya Bharadwaj, a chemistry major who will graduate in May. Born in Mumbai and raised in Nepal, Germany and Singapore before moving to New Jersey, Bharadwaj has family from Chennai. January’s visit was a follow-up to one she made four years ago as a high school student.

“Growing up in a small town in New Jersey (Westfield), I knew there was so much poverty, disease and pain in the world that I was not able to see from there. I could only see pictures, read stories and watch movies – but the more I was exposed to, the more I yearned to do something, ” Bharadwaj says.

Bharadwaj, who hopes to become a physician, and her mother spent three weeks in August 2006 at the Udavum Karangal Ashram in Chennai, working with kindergartners at a school connected with the ashram.

“The children were so joyful and excited about the simple things in life. They want the same things you and I do — to be loved and cared for, to have food and shelter, and to have an education with the hope for a better tomorrow, ” she says.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded the University of Connecticut the first UNESCO Chair in Human Rights in the United States. The chair joined a network of 52 UNESCO chairs around the world to promote human rights through education and research and to encourage collaboration among institutions of higher learning. The student ambassadors program was created to give any interested student a hands-on learning experience.

The trip set her future course. “That trip provided me with a human face to the notion of poverty. We often see poverty through media and television. But that is not how it really is.”

After the 2006 trip, Bharadwaj’s family kept in touch with Pappa Vidyaakar, the founder of the ashram. When Bharadwaj asked him how she and her classmates at UConn could help, he said he would like them to verbalize to his students the purpose of higher education.

After months of planning assisted by about 20 other students, all part of the Student Ambassador’s Program of the UNESCO Chair, the four CLAS students decided to provide a one-week inspirational workshop in India to focus on why and how to get a college education.

Bharadwaj and her companions spent the first week of January working with 26 students in Ramakrishna Niketan Higher Secondary School. The four UConn students realized on the first day that all of the students hoped to go on to higher education. Most want to become physicians, engineers or accountants.

But they needed help with English, and the Americans offered a daily grammar lessons and corrections for the essays the students wrote for them.

Their problems with the English language are very serious, says Rafael Perez-Segura of Storrs, another CLAS student on the trip.

“All of the national exams in India are in English, so no matter how well they know their stuff, if their English is not good, they cannot be competitive, ” says Pérez-Segura, a junior studying economics and political science.

The four students on the trip — the others were Amanda Pickett, who graduated in December after studying German and sociology, and Edward Burger, a sophomore studying German and international relations – are committed to finding ways to help the students.

“The students are already motivated. But they need to develop soft skills such as presenting in front of others, interviewing in a Western business climate and life planning,” says Pérez-Segura. “The learning is all very rote. So the students are very good at memorizing things – better than we are. But they are not really great at digesting new information if they are not told what to think. They need to develop critical thinking skills. ”

Bharadwaj plans to work in New York City next year as part of City Year, an AmeriCorps program, before attending medical school. She will be working as a mentor and after-school tutor for inner city students.

Pérez-Segura will travel to Brazil this March for a five-month special study program before he returns to complete his UConn degree.

Pickett wants to complete graduate work in women’s studies and Burger is studying human rights and interning in South Africa.

But none plans to forget Chennai. “We absolutely will continue working with Ramakrishna Vidya Niketan Higher Secondary School. Having visited the organization in India and observed the fabric of its people, we are inspired to do more for the students there, “Bharadwaj says.

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