"Be the change you wish to see in the world," Gandhi said. Working with KATHA, a non-governmental organization in New Delhi, UD students are inspired to find ways to improve the lives of poor women and children.
Empowering poor women and children through education has been a moral imperative of Mahasveta Barua's family for generations.
A professor of English at the University of Delaware, Barua had several great-aunts on her father's side who formed a home for women that evolved into one of the first women's colleges in India.
Her mother, also a strong influence, has long been involved with the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram, a girls' school inaugurated by Mohandas Gandhi, leader of Indian independence, in his wife's name.
"My great-aunt was a follower of Gandhi and a founder of the ashram," Barua says.
Now Barua is working to introduce UD students to India, the world's second most populous country, its remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as pressing societal issues including poverty and women's rights.
On trips she's led during the past two winter sessions, UD students have trekked to the Himalayas to interact with Tibetan and Nepalese groups and have met with famous Indian women writers at a New Delhi publishing institute.
They also have taken part in service-learning projects with KATHA, a non-governmental organization in New Delhi with the mission to "help every child in urban slums realize her full potential through community-based quality learning."
Although municipal education in India is free, many parents can't afford to keep their children in school, and the students often drop out around 8 or 9 years of age, Barua says.
"It is like in Slumdog Millionaire," she notes. "You can't tell students to go to school if they can't eat, and they can't eat if their family has no money."
Teaching women in these impoverished families how to prepare snacks and other goods to sell has been a major KATHA initiative.
Another approach is to attract students back to school through storytelling and other activities (KATHA means "narrative" in Hindi), which UD students recently helped to develop.
KATHA's Tamasha van (Tamasha means "street theater" in Hindi) travels to the local slums of New Delhi every weekday morning to pick up the children and transport them to a local park for structured educational activities.
The children learn basic math, the English alphabet, and simple words in Hindi, play educational games, and then eat lunch provided by KATHA. The van returns the children to their communities by the afternoon.
UD students Kim Napolitano (International Relations), Delia Murphy (Art History) and Louis Henry Coxe (English and Accounting) developed learning stations in which the children would color illustrations of varying numbers of fruit on pieces of paper and then match them up with corresponding numbered posters. If correct, the students would receive small pieces of candy as a prize. In a second activity, the youngsters put together puzzles.
"We believe that over a longer period of time and with some more funding for supplies, this volunteering opportunity could be successful and even elaborated," the UD students concluded. "We all enjoyed the experience and had great fun with the puzzles!"
Traveling through India and visiting various volunteer organizations, Ninamarie D'occhio (Medical Technology) and Emily Bunin (Philosophy) said it became clear to them that communication is of utmost importance to the success of international cooperation.
"In order to raise money and awareness, organizations such as KATHA and other NGOs [non-government organizations] must maintain a high level of modernity and legitimacy throughout their communication with the international audience," they noted.
The students evaluated the usability of KATHA's website and suggested ways in which it could better reach wider and international audiences. They also recommended that a sole webmaster be identified within the organization, with ultimate control over the website, to which the KATHA leadership was receptive.
Nicola Brooks (International Relations) and Ned Redmond (English and Art History) worked with art teacher Dilip Khanza and 11 KATHA students who created two acrylic paintings on canvas focusing on the theme of "sustainable urbanization" using recyclable materials. The striking hatch patterns featured in the final products imitate the Bengali stitching technique "Kantha," which can be pronounced "KATHA."
The paintings were displayed at the conference "Social Movements for Women and Children: Closing the Social Divide in Globalized Times" at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, and later were auctioned to raise funds for KATHA's schools.
The conference was organized by Barua and the education branch of KATHA and sponsored by UD's Institute for Global Studies and College of Arts and Sciences. More than 200 people attended, and the UD students had the opportunity to meet and talk with their peers from Indian institutions in break-out sessions.
"Our role was to go to India and not to judge, but to learn ways to implement positive change," Barua says. "I have now started the Global Academic Partnership with my students and am working to connect them to more organizations in India."