By Vivek Kumar:
Post my Engineering degree, I was an ordinary graduate. But I always sought an extraordinary journey in life. I was very clear about what I did not want. I wanted to contribute to the education system of the country, for it did not support me in standing up for my dream when I was young. Although I had a very vague idea of what I wanted to do – the bigger question was how? This quest led me to join the Gandhi Fellowship (GF) in 2010.
The Gandhi Fellowship helps young people aspire to bring a large-scale systemic change and resolve the country’s pressing problems through their own innovations and social change ideas. The fellows have to do practical work with 5 schools-5 headmasters-50 teachers-500 children and the community in difficult rural and urban locations.
The most fulfilling part of the GF Journey was that it strengthened my process-based thinking that allowed me to go beyond the peripheral/simplistic way of thinking. Processes like Vipasna, community immersion, personal reflection, learning journey, peer interaction and research assistant-ship, which are very much a part of the Fellowship, helped me become more aware of the nitty-gritty of the systems through which we work.
The Gandhi Fellowship equips fellows with life skills which they can later use in their ground-work. After completing the Fellowship in 2012, I worked in Hyderabad with a low-income school. The turning point in my life came when I moved to a tribal village for 18 months to understand the role of education in the most marginalized settings and why and how a community would benefit from it given the substandard quality of education provided in these areas, where I learned two important things. First, that rural and tribal people are the ones who value education the most, that’s why they don’t send their kids to schools providing substandard education. They also value meaningful relationships, and if we engage with communities that give them purpose and meaning, they participate with full force. Without my training a the Gandhi Fellowship I may have overlooked these valuable lessons, that helped me majorly in my journey ahead.
Post my learning there, I moved to Uganda to replicate the Gandhi Fellowship. The process was hugely challenging and rewarding at the same time. My biggest challenge was to contextualize the whole process of education to suit the learning needs of the youth and the school system. At the personal level, the biggest challenge or you can say learning was to understand the cultural context of the area, how people worked there, how they took decisions, how they prioritized things, what motivated them, what disappointed them, what offended them and what stimulated them intellectually.
Understanding all this was very important in building a team and without having been a Gandhi fellow, it would have been impossible to replicate such a dynamic program that required constant thinking. Team building and collaboration are such fancy words and overused at times, but to actually understand the nuances of it and to practice it is very different from what we see on the surface. To practice team work and build a team with a shared vision was one of the most difficult things and still is very challenging as the task is more about creating an idea of shared expectation, values and work ethics and understanding the team strength which is always much more than the sum of individuals.
The second biggest challenge was to inculcate and imbibe values that the Gandhi Fellowship stood for into the DNA of the program there.
Till today, I have led the team here successfully to recruit two cohorts of fellows working in 80 Government schools. I have been instrumental in setting up this program and running it for the last two years, and my aim is to leave at a place where we have a sustainable system of school education that can be scaled on its own. My main focus has been to integrate the social –emotional part of the learning to the larger systems in which we operate to understand ourselves and our journey and interventions in a much more holistic way.
Today, this fellowship is one of its kind in the whole of East Africa and utilizes the transformative potential of the youth to create a systemic dent in the public system. With this fellowship, we aim to grow enrollment and reach out to 38,200 out-of-school children in Uganda by training 150 young Ugandan graduates working in 600 primary schools.
My message to young people is to stop transacting for short term gains and encourage transactional relationships, start building transformational relationships and create a culture of learning around one through developing a million learning partners for oneself and the communities one works with, something I have imbibed from the Gandhi Fellowship and I am always thankful to it for.