A hundred fifty elementary-age students gather in the open air foyer, standing in neat, orderly rows. They face a stage at the front of the room, and in shocking unison, they sing India’s national anthem to a group of foreign students and faculty seated in plastic lawn chairs.
The study abroad students adorn curious and bewildered looks, nervous about a day of teaching ahead of them. The group, part of Salt Lake Community College’s study abroad program, is in the small town of Wai, India.
Wai is home to the Wai School, a K-10 institution founded by former SLCC board member Ashok Joshi and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. Founded in 2005, the school serves about 1,800 students and is situated directly in the middle of Wai.
According to Joshi, in a town of less than 40,000, the only accessible school prior to the Wai School was located several miles outside of town. This posed a safety risk to the many students who walked to and from school.
“It would be dark by the time they finished school, so we were very concerned about their safety,” says Joshi. “[But] we also wanted the people in Wai to have better overall access.”
However, Joshi’s vision goes beyond accessibility and safety. More than anything, he is focused on providing a place for youth in Wai to find the means to leave their small, economically starved town.
The degree of opportunity a student can expect to have, Joshi posits, is largely dependent on their language skills.
“The English language is a ticket out of Wai for these students,” says Joshi. “Many tech and financial sector jobs require English, and if the Wai School students can start earlier, they’ll be more proficient and better qualified.”
At the moment, however, the Wai School doesn’t require that students learn English.
“I want to make learning English compulsory and [I would] have them start in the fifth grade,” says Joshi. “That’s my next project with the Wai School.”
Joshi also says that teaching students the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and innovative thinking is crucial for surviving in India’s 21st-century economy.
“Only 40% of college graduates in India have a job,” says Joshi. “Maybe if we teach them to think entrepreneurially, when they can’t find work, they can make work.”
Something Joshi is particularly pleased with is SLCC’s involvement with the Wai School.
To slowly incorporate the pieces Joshi mentioned into the school’s curriculum, this summer, SLCC study abroad students tested the waters by exposing some of these concepts to Wai School students. The SLCC students are part of the Management 2990 course, a management and entrepreneurship course in which students come up with business and lesson plans for rural entrepreneurs and students.
One SLCC study abroad and pre-med student, Bhawisha Bhawna, says she wasn’t sure what to expect when teaching the Wai School students. However, Bhawna says the level of respect and thoughtfulness the Wai School students brought to the classroom was nothing short of impressive.
“Despite the fact we taught Wai School students topics more advanced than what they typically learn, they rose to the occasion and performed the activities with such passion,” says Bhawna. “If these kids can tackle such a challenging, new syllabus without hesitation, why can’t I do the same [for challenges in my life].”
Bhawna says the natural resolve these children showed is conducive to becoming strong entrepreneurs.
Bhawna also has a leg up in communicating with the Wai School students as she speaks Hindi and English, in addition to a more obscure Indo-Aryan dialect known as Marathi.
“Speaking Hindi was the best part of the trip,” says Bhawna. “Being able to connect with people is one of the most rewarding aspects of human experience and I was able to create an instant bond through language.”
Her innate bond with India and its culture through the use of language also allowed her to feel at home, even while abroad.
“There was never a time in India where I felt that I was far from my family,” says Bhawna.
For those considering the India study abroad trip, Bhawna says hesitation is not an option.
“The only thing I have to say to the students thinking about this trip is not to give it a second thought. Go for it! It’s a life changing experience and will change your perspective about a lot of things,” says Bhawna.
Follow SLCC Study Abroad to learn more about the program.