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Amanda: Seva Mandir

April 29, 2011

While I lived in Udaipur, I worked as an intern in the education department at Seva Mandir.  Seva Mandir is the largest and most well-known NGO (non-governmental organization) in Udaipur, and one of the most prominent NGOs in Rajasthan.

While at Seva Mandir, I completed a project on children who receive a scholarship from Seva Mandir but drop out of school anyways.  Although I was often frustrated at Seva Mandir because of language and cultural differences, I feel like the work I completed really did matter.  During the course of my project, I visited over 11 villages and spoke to over 20 kids and their families.  I rode jeeps through dry, rocky terrain.  I scaled mountains with my translator and a few 10 year-old boys in search for kids.  My translators gave me tours of villages aboard India’s most common transportation vehicle: a motorcycle.  I drank unfiltered water!  The sun, blazing through cloudless skies, showed my white skin no mercy.  Goats once snacked on my reports while I interviewed a child.  I met women so shy they hid behind their saris, responding to my questions in giggles.  I discovered that poverty, real poverty, has nothing to do with money and everything to do with opportunity.

A high-end clothing company from the UK, Monsoon Accesorize, funds a scholarship for children in villages surrounding Udaipur.  Children must meet several requirements to become eligible for the scholarship.  They must attend at least two 2-month learning camps, be over the age of 9, and have at least a 70% attendance rate at school.  The scholarship is intended to provide children an option to stay in school.  All of the kids I interviewed were eligible for the scholarship but quit school for several reasons: some kids left because their teachers abused them; some left to watch livestock, some kids quit because school didn’t interest them any more; some left because polio crippled their legs, making their walk to school unbearable; some kids left to work at stone mines for the equivalent of $1/day; some kids left after a parent died in order to support their households.

My boss, Sunitaji, was one of the most independent and passionate women I have ever met.  She opted to spend nights at learning camps in order to invest in teachers and children.  She taught me the difference between giving people money and giving people tools for life.  The night before my last day at Seva Mandir, Sunitaji invited me to her house and cooked fish for me!  Sunita let me play with her son and watch whatever I wanted on her TV. Dinner at Sunitaji’s was such a sweet gesture and some of the best food I had in India.

I worked with many other interns from around the world at Seva Mandir, including people from India (of course), France, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the US.  I met friends who could sympathize with being a foreigner in India.  We joked about being white in a country of brown.  We celebrated Holi from a rooftop, took too many chai breaks, and complained about “Indian time” (and in doing so, became affected ourselves by the Indian pattern of time-delay). 

I presented my project to Seva Mandir’s entire education department my last day of work.  I was very nervous to make suggestions about the scholarship program to educational professionals.  Although only about half of the audience knew enough English to follow my presentation, everyone was very supportive of the project.

Working with Seva Mandir was great for me at this stage in my life for many reasons.  I have always been interested in education, but made the decision about a year ago not to pursue a career as a teacher in the US public education system immediately after college.  Through my work, I realized that a good education is a right to all children regardless of the country they are born in or their family’s socio-economic status.  A good education doesn’t end when kids quit school.  An education challenges children for life and teaches them the joy in living intentionally.  In my opinion, education is the foundation for development and is essential for individual empowerment.

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