The second portion of my internship at Naandi Foundation has been documenting and profiling the participants at N-star centers in Hyderabad. N-star centers are spaces that the Naandi Foundation has provided with laptops and WiFi, books, and self-education materials. The target participants of the centers are female students between the age of 16 and 18, who has completed her grade 10 examinations. The centers function as physical spaces in which the participants, labeled “learners” (because the students come to the centers to learn life skills) can come at free of cost in order to learn English, financial literacy, nutrition, reproductive health, and other skills in order to have a better chance of being hired for a job.
The centers are located in low-income neighborhoods for various reasons. First of all, the training offered at the centers are most effective for young women in low-income households. These families are more likely to marry off their daughters after finishing her 10thyear, discouraging them from pursuing further education or acquiring a job. Second, almost all learners are prohibited by their parents from going anywhere other than school on their own. By placing the centers in their neighborhood, it eliminates location and safety as a concern and makes it easier to persuade the parents to send their daughters. Third, it makes it easier to identify women’s education rate by location. By going around the entire neighborhood and asking every resident to send their daughters between the age of 16 and 18 to the center, young women in that neighborhood are getting a valuable education. Fourth, with a system that brings girls from the same neighborhood and socioeconomic background together, the participants are more likely to make closer friends here than elsewhere. This, in turn, creates a stronger peer support group that the learners can socially benefit from.
Coming from Korea, a country that obsesses over higher education and boasts one of the highest education levels in the world, discouragement of higher education came as a shock. No one I knew was dissuaded from going to college, let alone studying whatever they could in order to be competitive against their peers. The things I learned from talking to the learners clashed against my ingrained ideas of education. Every time I stepped into an N-star center, I was actually stepping outside of the bubble of what I experienced during my whole life.
Despite these differences, the ambiance at these centers felt so familiar to me, and the spark in the learners’ eyes reflected the excitement I felt when I first learned English. I started learning English before starting school at an apartment suite in my neighborhood with two other seven-year-olds. The very fact of learning something new excited me so much. Every day, we would have a different lesson ranging from reading, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and speaking. Watching the lessons at N-star centers reminded me of the storybooks I’ve read, folk songs I memorized, Go Fish games I played, the worksheets I filled out, and the short presentations I wrote and gave. I went into the centers with the expectation of simply observing something new but spent each minute chipping away at my memories.
The zest in the learners wasn’t exclusive to the English lessons. The energy was present during all of the lessons I’ve observed, ranging from women’s empowerment to financial literacy to nutrition. It was the purest form of enthusiasm I noticed, a result of granting the right to pursue education to young girls by providing them with the necessary lessons. This eagerness to learn reminded me of what my grandfather had told me countless times as a child: that learning was the most worthwhile and fulfilling activity one could do for oneself, as knowledge and education aren’t things that can be taken away, ever.