“It gives me an immense amount of satisfaction when I see that I can help kids who are willing to learn but don’t have the opportunity to,” Mili Chatterjee, a volunteer at eVidyaloka said.
Their job isn’t easy. These volunteers take the time to sit behind a computer and teach students in rural areas on the other side of the world.
They do this because they know that out there children without access to quality education are falling behind. The volunteers take it upon themselves to help bridge the gap.
It’s why many Indian Americans decided to join eVidyaloka — an organization determined to provide quality digital education to students in rural India.
What is eVidyaloka and how are Indian Americans involved?
eVidyaloka, a non-profit organization located in Bangalore, India, connects children in remote communities to teacher volunteers across India and all over the world using digital classrooms.
Venkat Sriraman and Satish Vishwanathan founded the organization in 2011. The pair wanted to find the intersection between volunteerism and technology while simultaneously providing an education to “the most deserving children of remote and rural villages of India,” according to the eVidyaloka website.
Focusing on grades fifth to eighth (and more recently ninth and tenth), eVidyaloka teaches math, science, English and life skills to students in about 490 villages across rural India. The organization has accumulated over 6,000 active volunteers.
They focus on solving problems like the understaffed nature of rural schools. According to the Rate of the Education Report for India-2021 conducted by UNESCO, there is a shortage of 11.16 lakh (1.116 million) teachers in India. Nearly all single-teacher schools are located in rural areas and with online volunteers, eVidyaloka works toward changing this.
Another issue they strive to solve is the high dropout rate in rural areas of India.
“We want to make sure that children enjoy coming to school and enjoy learning,” said eVidyaloka CEO Brinda Poornapragna. “If students enjoy learning, then they are less likely to drop out. So that’s the intrinsic and necessary aspect that eVidyaloka is trying to solve.”
In order to accomplish these goals, eVidyaloka partners with local NGOs, government schools, class assistants and donors to set up technological infrastructure (such as WiFi and electricity) and conduct these classes.
The last element to the success of the program is the involvement of volunteers.
According to Ravi Raghavan, an executive consultant at eVidyaloka, the program has Indian volunteers from all over the world with close to 2,000 from the United States.
“The Indian American, and overall international role is huge,” Raghavan said. “Imagine the cross-section of knowledge that is being transferred to [the children], which they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.”
To learn more about why the need for eVidyaloka arose in the first place, listen to this…
Arun Kumar and Mili Chatterjee are Indian Americans who have been volunteering with eVidyaloka for the past six and four years respectively. They are devoted volunteers active in their local communities. But both of them were attracted to the opportunities at eVidyaloka specifically for one reason — cultural belonging.
“As a first-generation Indian American, I had one foot there and one here,” Kumar said. “I have volunteered a lot in this country, but when I heard about the organization, I felt a sense of belonging to give back to my home country.”
As Americans of Indian origin, they said they experience a dual identity, containing that of an American and Indian, as well as the sense of responsibility that comes along with it.
“I was already volunteering at my daughter’s school, but I wanted to do something for my home country, where I was born, and where I got most of my education from,” Chatterjee said. “I wanted to do something for India, the country I belong to.”
For some volunteers, this connection extends farther toward a personal connection with the students. Specifically for Chatterjee, she feels as if she could see her younger self in the children she teaches.
“When I was teaching the Jharkhand students, I could actually relate to them because somewhere down the line, I felt like I used to be one of them,” she said. “The way their eyes were always full of questions. I remember being like that as a kid.”
Chatterjee remembered a specific instance when she taught a young girl who she felt a bond with. She said that by looking at her hunger to learn, she could see the same reflected in herself.
“In the personal aspect too, I felt like there’s a connection and I could actually relate to them in so many ways,” Chatterjee said.
Barriers: Culture and access to knowledge
Even within India, there are cultural differences between groups and subgroups, from state to state, city to city and town to town. But for Indian American volunteers, these differences might seem larger than usual.
One such dissimilarity is the cultural lens of teaching these kids, specifically through books. India is home to 22 official languages (and more than 200 other dialects) with the second language being English.
Many of the books used in the rural government education system in India are in the English medium, with states providing books in their respective state languages. Due to the sheer volume of languages, there is a lack of consistency between the culture that the book portrays and that of the individuals reading it.
However, according to Kumar, this is changing.
He mentioned how he had initially taught his classes using the books his own children would use in the U.S., but soon realized that the children he taught could not relate to them. In light of this, he began using text produced by the nonprofit organization Pratham books.
Books published by Pratham Books are written in English as well as 24 other Indian languages with the local cultural lens in mind.
“It was no more Jack and Jill went up the hill kind of stories,” said Kumar. “It was all locally made, locally contextualized, locally connectable stories, and this context tremendously helped the reading part of it.”
Another difficulty volunteers face is a barrier to access to knowledge for the children.
Chatterjee mentioned that without access to a wider variety of information, children in these areas are often undereducated on matters outside the scope of their local vicinity.
“Especially with the West Bengal kids, they didn’t know what the beach means. So I had to share my screen and literally show them what the ocean looks like,” Chatterjee said. “So these are the small things which we think everybody would know, but actually, they don’t because exposure is limited.”
Above all, eVidyaloka and its volunteers strive to uplift the rural communities of India through the education of its children.
According to Kumar, aside from providing students with an education, one of the most important ways to uplift rural communities is by simply acknowledging the existence of the children.
“You’re foundationally saying, ‘Hey, you exist, we care about you,’” Kumar said. “It is not only about teaching English or science or math, it is asserting that these children exist, these people are also important in life and they are equally valid.”
Another important aspect of this education is the enabling of the children to be self-sufficient. Kumar mentioned an initiative that aimed to do exactly this by arming these schools with dictionaries.
“We wanted these students to become self-carrying,” Kumar said. “Where they could think, ‘oh, I can look up this dictionary word for myself and understand it, I don’t need anybody else to.’ So the ability to search on their own, to make them self-sufficient was my goal.”
Making these students self-sufficient is one thing, but Kumar is passionate about another social issue: reforming the discrepancy between girls and boys in the classroom, specifically the lower priority given to the education of girls.
“In that society, to some extent, there is a difference in how some of the boys and girls are treated, and there is an opportunity for me to make a change there,” Kumar said. “For example, once when the girls were sitting in the back, I said, ‘No, you’re going to come and sit in the front, you’re all the same.’ So these are some of the little changes I could make, which will have a longer-term impact.”
In a situation where there are very limited opportunities for children in these rural areas, eVidyaloka hopes to stand as a sign of hope for a better and more equal future.
“We are not teaching the children because we feel sorry for them, but because we feel that they are under-served. And that’s a lot of difference,” Poornapragna said. “We feel that every child in the country deserves an equal opportunity to study and to do well in life.”
Making a change
Despite living on the opposite side of the world with difficult class times, these Indian American volunteers still take time out of their schedule to teach classes.
Both Chatterjee and Kumar agree that this motivation comes from the drive to make a change in the world and the personal contentment that comes with it.
“For us volunteers you’re not getting paid or anything but you’re doing it for yourself because it’s very fulfilling and you’re giving back to the society,” Chatterjee said.
For Chatterjee especially, volunteerism also provides an outlet through which she can stay grounded.
“I think [volunteering] has a lot of value because when we go out and help other people, we realize how privileged we are,” Chatterjee said.
At the end of the day, Indian American volunteers, other volunteers from all around the world, the eVidyaloka staff and all their supporters come together to help make this program a success.
“Since 2011 we have been teaching and enabling children online and now only with COVID has the rest of the world caught on,” Poornapragna said. “I think to that extent, we are revolutionary, and we will continue to be so.”