Forget the J1: volunteering in India

Travelling to India to teach children English isn’t a typical college experience. But last summer, 91 students from Irish colleges did just that.

Avril Jatariu was one of those students who travelled to India as part of the Suas Volunteer Programme in June 2013. Avril worked as a teaching assistant in an education centre in Kolkata.

“It was really rewarding”, she said. “I wanted something that would add to my CV but at the same time be a great experience as well.”

Avril travelled around India and spent 10 weeks teaching basic English to children in the Beniapukur Nabadisha Centre. For the majority of those attending the centre, it was their only way of getting an education, according to Avril. “The kids in the school I taught in were coming from poor family backgrounds.”

In Beniapukur the population is 700,000. In the centre where Avril and one of the other volunteers worked, there were three teachers for 99 pupils.

India’s culture differs greatly from Ireland. To deal with the culture shock, Avril attended three preparation weekends by Suas in second semester. Avril learnt about the Cast system and the clothing. Suas gave her basic phrases to learn in Bengali and Urdu, the main language of her area.

While she was there, Avril noticed the low cost of living. “With 80 rupees (approx. €1) you can have three meals if you buy street food.” In cities, the official poverty line is living on 28.65 rupees (56 cent a day), according to the India Human Development Report 2011. “When you get outside the city centre the poverty strikes you straight away”, says Avril.

Avril also noticed how women are viewed differently in India to Western countries. On one occasion, she was in a taxi with her male team member and the taxi driver would only address her friend, even when asking questions about her.

Over the ten weeks, the volunteers put in a huge effort. “We had a speaking festival with the kids where they had to perform on stage. They had to read a book, perform a play and recite a poem. They gained lots of confidence in speaking English.”

The kids also wrote a short book using simple English called “Find a Bin” with the help of Avril and her teaching partner. As Kolkata has a waste disposal issue, they wrote it so the children would know not to throw rubbish on the streets.

The last day was emotional for both volunteers and their students. “We cried a lot. They (the kids) were calling me Mam.”

Getting to India was a challenge too. Each student had to raise €3,000 each. Avril raised money through a cake sale, comedy night in the Laughter Lounge and a Suas organised competition.

The experience had a profound effect on Avril. “When I was at home with my family it was like living in a bubble but when I went there that bubble just disappeared and you realise life isn’t as easy as you think it is.”

Martina Brophy

Image credit: Avril Jatariu

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