I strongly believe in children having a “balanced,” as opposed to a strictly academic, education. This is despite (or maybe because of!) the fact that I was brought up in a culture which places academic success above all else. My belief in well-rounded education has been strengthened by the Wallenberg Travel Award and my experiences thereafter. The Award helped me implement my dreamy ideals in a tiny corner of a tough world.
I traveled back to my home country, India, to establish an after-school program Pudiyador-Adyar for underprivileged children in the slums of Madras (Chennai). The program was modeled after an existing program called Pudiyador. The central idea revolves around the belief that children should have a wholesome childhood, irrespective of the background they come from. Although this idea seems simple and obvious, I quickly realized how this is not the case in places where children are viewed as potentially cheap labor.
Since my work was in my hometown, I thought it could be accomplished smoothly, but nothing could have prepared me for those crazy but amazing six weeks. I encountered frustrating bureaucracy that stood between us and our objectives, pessimistic people who questioned the very need to educate underprivileged children and tiresome cultural practices that made life very difficult in general. On the other hand, I worked with some of the nicest people, saw some fantastic work done in other organizations, learned a whole lot from the children at Pudiyador and truly understood what it takes to start a non-profit organization from scratch and run it successfully.
Most important lesson learned: Impacting society even on a small scale is not a 6-week affair. It not only involves a lot more time than I had imagined, but also more people, resources and…obstacles! Starting a Pudiyador would not have been possible without the Wallenberg Travel Award money and the inspiration that it provided. I also want to mention that it was certainly not a single-handed effort. I had at least three people from the Pudiyador family by my side at all times. Together with their experiences, resources, goodwill and encouragement, we managed to start a center to help children in need. A year after that was done, we are still working hard to keep the center up and running from halfway across the world with occasional visits. A registered Michigan non-profit called PACE now bridges the gap between the two countries. A University of Michigan student organization called Inner PACE now works directly with the running of Pudiyador. More and more people are getting involved at various levels, from volunteering to work with the children on the ground to contributing ideas at the organizational level.
The children at Pudiyador do not really understand the scale of it all, but they will do so as they grow up. I truly believe that their well-rounded education will help them transcend their economic and social boundaries. Perhaps they will soon learn that no ideal is too dreamy for the real world.