Connecting, Discovering, Developing a Worldview
Stories and Photos by Jill Clerkin
Grounded in “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie [video at right], the parable “Blind Men and an Elephant,” writings about perspectives, service, and humility by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. Paul Farmer, and many open and honest discussions, Niswarth students and faculty mindfully prepared for their three weeks in India.
And while the country provides a compelling context, the Niswarth program is not just about India. It’s about discovery, listening, questioning, service, compassion, and connection. And much more.
“India is just one of many possible out-of-context environments where Niswarth’s holistic approach to learning and self-growth can be guided and nurtured without worry about judgment or grades,” explains Raj Mundra, PA biology instructor and Niswarth (Hindi for non sibi) founder and director. “Niswarth is a journey toward developing a worldview, an invitation to look beyond the obvious, an opportunity for self-reflection, a means of discerning human connections among dissimilar people, and a framework for considering issues back on campus and in home communities.”
In mid-June, 14 open-hearted, open-minded students (including four from Phillips Exeter Academy) took a flying leap into the unfamiliar, traveling physically—and emotionally—from the rapidly growing city of Ahmedabad to the disparate slums and high-rises of Mumbai to the dusty villages of rural Kalol.
SPIRITUALITY AND A SENSE OF SELF
Niswarth’s early days in Ahmedabad involved an exploration of spirituality (defined in part by Arzu Singh ’16 as “the openness of one’s heart” and by Caroline Hoskins ’15 as “the state of being one with your surroundings, the ability to nd beauty in everything you encounter”), self and selflessness, truth, trust, and love. Students learned basic meditation techniques, participated in group reflections, and conversed with NGO leaders and citizen changemakers passionate about the health and welfare of their communities. “One of my biggest takeaways was meeting and interacting with people who actually live their values,” says Claire Glover ’16.
After observing conditions in Ahmedabad’s largest slum, English instructor Catherine Tousignant ’88 reminded the group that Niswarth does not set out to fix problems. “We are here,” she said, “to learn, explore, observe, listen, discuss, ask questions, reflect, feel, connect, understand, and grow.” A Niswarth veteran, Tousignant works with Mundra to help students be fully present and connect their observations.
At the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati, an ecosystem of people and organizations committed to the Mahatma’s values, students and faculty met with Jayesh Patel, founder of Manav Sadhna, one of Niswarth’s NGO partner organizations. “Manav Sadhna’s motto is ‘Love all, serve all,’” says Singh. “They go into communities, talk to the people, determine what the people need most, and do everything they can to help build and provide what is needed—all with humility and deep love.”
LIVING AND LEARNING AT ESI
Isa Tejera-Sindall ’15 recalls the group’s arrival at the Environmental Sanitation Institute (ESI): “As soon as we stepped o the bus, Suresh Bhai popped out of nowhere and embraced us all warmly, saying two simple words to a group of kids he had never met: ‘Welcome home.’” For several pivotal days, Niswarthians strolled ESI’s quiet grounds, savored delicious meals freshly prepared by a gracious staff, slept in simple quarters, and absorbed its omnipresent Gandhian wisdom.
It was at ESI that students and faculty met Mukesh Bhai, a longtime practitioner of silent meditation. His calm, accepting nature and principled approach to truth, morality, simple living, and serving others made a lasting impression on many students.
“More than any place, ESI impacted my spirit and sense of self, from learning about mind control from Mukesh Bhai to losing myself in the candles lit at the silent dinner,” says Jenny Wang ’16. “I found a peace that was wrapped in layers of worry and insecurity.”
FEEL, IMAGINE, DO, SHARE
Late in their first week, Niswarth students teamed up for several days with 14 peers from the Riverside School, a progressive K–12 private school founded by education reformer and social entrepreneur Kiran Bir Sethi. Sethi also developed Design For Change (DFC), a four-step framework—Feel, Imagine, Do, Share—that empowers children to take action to reshape their world.
Following DFC’s rigorous methodology of understanding and responding to community needs, the 28 students divided into five teams to work at two government-run elementary schools serving children from low-income families. Through observation and multiple interviews, the teams sought to identify areas that the school’s teachers and children wanted to improve. Sethi offered post-project comments and encouragement. “Many of you saw the school’s filthy bathroom as one of the biggest probems to ‘fix,’ ” she said. “If you ask their opinions, most schoolchildren will say that the bathroom doesn’t bother them at all—it’s better than the one they have at home.” She thanked students for their hard work, reminding them that their challenge is about determining what issues affect the user—in this case, the children—not about what is important to them.
CITY OF EXTREMES
In Mumbai, India’s most populous city, Niswarthians began to recognize essential connections between early childhood nutrition, access to health care, and preschool education while visiting Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC), an NGO facility located on the construction site of a massive Marriott hotel.
“Tens of millions of Indian men and women are migrant laborers,” Vrushali Naik, MMC program coordinator, told the group. “Workers are recruited from their villages to do hard and dangerous labor for $3 to $10 a day. Many bring their families to live in shacks right where they work, often for several years. Members of these marginalized communities have no voice, no rights.”
Naik estimates there are 50,000 children at Mumbai’s 3,000 construction sites. Through a network of makeshift structures throughout the city, MMC provides food, vaccinations and other health care, schooling, and safety for hundreds of children who otherwise would be left to fend for themselves.
From ground zero to a view from 30,000 feet
Prior to visiting Dharavi, Mumbai’s—and Asia’s—largest slum, Mundra and Andy Housiaux, instructor in philosophy and religious studies and three-time Niswarth leader, enjoined students to seek commonalities with the nearly one million men, women, and children living and working there. After touring the 500-acre slum (the same size as Phillips Academy’s campus), Jenny Wang ’16 wrote, “I saw too much and not enough.”
The experience provoked thoughtful discussion among Niswarthians about such questions as what is a good human life? What is a meaningful life?
That evening, students experienced a very dierent Mumbai at the Oberoi Hotel offices of The Parthenon Group, a global education consulting firm. Karan Khemka ’94, Parthenon partner and cohead of education practice, gave a candid overview of Mumbai, past, present, and future. Backed by compelling data and global case studies, Khemka explained why he believes an expansion of tertiary education is the key to India’s development.
THE ANGANWADIS OF KALOL
Set among grassy plains and, as of late June, still-barren sugarcane and coon fields (the monsoons were late this year), Kalol is a small city comprising more than 70 villages. Niswarthians were able to meet children and teachers at several area anganwadis—communities of 1,000 or so impoverished citizens that receive government assistance with their basic needs and help establishing preschool programs. Unfortunately, government support can be unreliable.
Setco Foundation, a Niswarth partner organization that focuses on health, nutrition, education, and the empowerment of women and children in rural areas, has “adopted” 12 of Kalol’s more than 20 anganwadis. Accompanied by foundation president Urja Shah (wife of Harshal Shah ’88) and Setco interpreters, Niswarth students observed varied preschool environments, teacher-student interactions, and the children’s activities and engagement. They initiated simple games with the wide-eyed preschoolers, and, with groups of older girls, they connected through interpreters, dancing, henna painting, and learning beadwork.
Niswarthians generated a great deal of curiosity in the various communities; Indians of all ages smiled and greeted them with “Namaste!”—Hindi for welcome. During their final days in Kalol, Niswarth students and faculty shadowed Setco community health workers as they visited local families. Discussions involved the needs of young mothers and their children and whether additional support would be helpful. From Isa Tejera-Sindall ’15’s blog post:
“We enter a two-room home, with a kitchen/living room and a bedroom, and [the girl] gestures for us to sit on her bed in the corner. A baby goat peaks its head from under my feet and then shuffles off, irritated at our intrusion. I silently apologize.
“One of the preschool teachers who works with Setco has come along with us to ask questions. Urja [Shah] quietly translates in English. I gather the basic facts: the girl is 22, married at 17, her children are 4 and 1. Her older son attends the anganwadi from eight to two every day, while she stays at home with the baby and does household chores. Her husband works with machines. She likes to sew. Her name is Sunita.
“We are joined by an assortment of curious onlookers: two of the children’s aunts, 16 and 17 respectively, a mother-in-law with a long grey braid and smiling wrinkles, a 6-year-old with muddy feet and cheeks, and the grumpy goat who has somehow come back to forgive me. The baby boldly tries to grab at the goat’s ear to get my attention, and the old lady pulls his hand away, scolding him. She makes eye contact with me, apologetic. I smile back understandingly.
“Our goal, as Urja [Shah] explained, is to make their lives a little bit easier, to share information, to give advice, to share a little bit of love. We are not here as intruders, but as fellow humans.”
LEARNING FOR LIFE
Near the end of the three weeks, several students wondered aloud how they should respond to the inevitable, “What did you learn in India?”
“Start with ‘It’s complicated,’” suggested Mundra, “then demonstrate your learning through your actions.”
Upon returning to Andover, Niswarth faculty help students identify opportunities to integrate their new global views of education, development, and community, encouraging these young changemakers to deepen their moral introspection through coursework and service. This year, the group will organize a Design For Change conference at PA in February 2015, with special guest Kiran Sethi.
At a Niswarth gathering in mid-September, students discussed their intent to practice Niswarthian habits at school—small acts of kindness every day, empathy as a primary lens for understanding the needs of the community, and frequent reflection and meditation to manage their busy lives.
Thee transformation they seek does not always come easily. But the words of Jayesh Patel echo in their hearts: “Develop relationships, not results-oriented projects. Work to understand people, and we will deepen our understanding of who we are and what our relationships mean. We will start to see that we are all interconnected, our journeys are intertwined.”
Jill Clerkin, who spent eight days in India with Niswarth students and faculty, is a senior writer and editor in Andover’s Office of Communication.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Andover, Phillips Academy's magazine friends and alumni.