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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Reflections upon Summer 2012 - Natalia Choi

Team member, Natalia Choi reflects on her experience in India working with ITSA Summer 2012

I guess the word I would describe my overall experience with India would be “Up Close.” This word has been in my head since the first day of the trip when little kids came knocking (and some climbing) on our van for money until the last night when our group gathered in a circle at night to share things we appreciated about each other. Being with around 12-20  people throughout the trip (I realized just how around people I had been when I was waiting alone in the Delhi airport for 12 hours…), we were first of all, physically “up close.” Everyday, we shoved ourselves into the 9-person “tourist vehicle” van, squeezing in and sitting on top of one another. Our record I’d have to say was the time when we left the drive-in theater when we fit 10 people in a small compact vehicle meant to fit maybe 5~6 people at most. And since we stayed together as a group most of the time, we spent A LOT of time with each other especially at Riana’s grandparents’ apartment which acted as the headquarter office for ITSA in India.

During my time in India, I also met wonderful people like my host family, Riana’s family, the ITSA India team members, and my workshop students. From them, I got to learn a little more about the Indian culture and also realize the culture I’m coming from. I’ve especially enjoyed meeting Riana’s grandmother “Dadi” who has fed us (almost literally since she stood over us at each meal to make sure we were getting plenty of chapatis to eat). Though I wasn’t always able to meet her standard for eating enough, we bonded over time and made chapatis together during the final week. My host family was also amazingly sweet and made me feel right at home making me the best masala chai and packing me a delicious tiffin (a stacked metal lunch box) full of yummy vegetables, rice, and chapatis for lunch. The many Indian college students who also volunteered with ITSA were also really vital part of our “ITSA family.” As our guides, they helped navigate the crazy-ness that is India by helping us bargain, to not get lost in the streets, and to take rickshaws. As our friends, they introduced us to the latest bollywood hits which we danced to together and celebrated festivals like Holi and Diwali.
Riana's Family, and their home crashers

The students I worked with in Ahmedabad and Rajkot also made this whole trip experience rewarding and inspiring. It was amazing to see how the lesson plans which we imagined were actually implemented to give ideas and thoughts for the students. I was especially excited for the lesson plan on modern day slavery since it is an issue that I had been much interested in. In this lesson, we first started by asking the students whether or not they thought slavery still existed in India. We had mixed opinions, some saying a definitive yes, some maybe in certain areas of the world, some “not in India.” So when students were given a fact sheet statistics and facts on modern day slavery, many were surprised by the magnitude of the problem. Through watching a video on child trafficking and continuing discussions about the effects of poverty on the security of human rights, students gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issue. Students also created a web with words like illiteracy, corruption, and globalization connected to slavery in order to learn about how interconnected issues were in society. I also shared my experience on leading a Fair Trade campaign during my high school to show them that high school students are very much capable of contributing a positive impact on the world. It was exciting to see how much students progressed throughout the workshops in understanding issues we discussed (slavery, corruption, gender discrimination, and environmentalism) and also in gaining a sense of social responsibility. Students cumulated so much energy to do something for the world that all the 60+ ITSAprenuers (workshop students) signed up to pursue social action projects at the end. Having worked with such an enthusiastic and bright group of students like our ITSApreneurs, I have gained more faith in the power of education and also hope for a better world.
How could I not? Doing my classic Natalia presentation spreading awareness about Fair Trade

Often times it seems that it’s the sites, the great monuments and museums that we pose in front of that we remember most after travelling. But I think once we get to spend more time in a place, it becomes the people we interact with and get to know that we remember most. Travelling with a large group in the second most populous country for five weeks, I think I’ve gotten to encounter people who’ve left a mark on the way I see the world. I’m grateful for having had such opportunity to meet such a fun and eclectic mix of people whom I’ll miss, but at least I have plenty of wonderful pictures (2000+) and unforgettable memories to look back on and smile on.
The Social Action Team in front of our 60 foot long mural!

My lovely host family!

Celebrating Diwali on our last night

Celebrating Holi, the festival of colors!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

3 Idiots & ITSA Reflections

From Natalia Choi's Blog, the Little Yellow Dandelion (, as she reflects upon watching the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots & her inspiration to work with ITSA:
From what I gathered from the cover photo (three men on silly chairs that looked like butts), I expected a comedy of sorts with maybe some  feel-good message about life. But a student of mine also had told me that the movie really represented what was going on in India. She didn’t tell me exactly what that was, but I was intrigued.
The 3 idiots DVD Cover
Like any Bollywood hit movie, there was inevitably wild yet coordinated dancing scenes with songs that get stuck in your head for days. That was obviously to be expected. There were also lots of comic scenes with cleverly engineered pranks by the three main characters of the movie. But the movie also contained honest depictions of the real danger of mental stress fueled by the Indian education system and other societal expectations. I thought the movie exposed lines all very familiar to most Korean students: “Study your way to bring your family out of poverty,”  or “Choose a stable lucrative careers so as to not burden your family who’ve sacrificed so much for you.” The movie shows that such educational mottos not only were hindering students from following (or even finding) their passions, but also were causing them to end their lives. This is an issue that is not just unique to India. According to Wikepedia, India had 43rd highest suicide rate in the world, whereas S. Korea has the 2nd highest and the U.S. 41st (I was surprised to discover that Lithuania had the highest suicide rate in the world). It seems to me that this issue is getting worse and worse each time I come back to Korea. I hear of suicides by celebrities, young students, working dads often enough to keep it lingering in the back of my mind. Banners declaring a bully-free zone hang in front of schools and swimming pools. “How do we stop this madness?” I wonder and wonder thinking a banner won’t do. The key line in the movie “All is well” was repeated throughout the movie in times of frustration, panic, and stress in order to give the courage to find a solution in such times.
So I must say “All is well” while patting my chest so as to not get too disparaged when lost for clear solutions.
Remembering my experience leading ITSA workshops in India, I feel that what ITSA did was part of the solution: creating a friendly, supportive, and open environment for learning about ourselves and society. A place where questions and mistakes are as valuable as knowing the book answers and getting a high grade (or “mark” as it is referred to in India), where classmates are fellow friends and learners rather than competitors, where students could learn material they’ll actually remember the week after their exams.
When signing up to intern with ITSA, Korea had been in my mind. I had always wanted to do something to reverse the crazy cycle of the Korean education system in order to allow students to enjoy learning and make an environment where classmates weren’t regarded as their competitors. I just didn’t know how… until I ran into ITSA. I remember reading about ITSA in an email and thinking “This is it, I can be a part of the change now. I don’t have to wait until I’m in a high position in the government to make such a change!” Recalling the faces of the high school students I’ve met (looking younger than expected since they say that in India kids look younger longer) and the conversations in which I learned about their education system (how they have to declare their track in 9th standard and take standardized Board exams which determine their college admission), I remember feeling frustrated by my inability to rescue them out of the constricting education system. Students knew that it was too early to decide what to do with their lives, that standardized tests were not effective measurements of knowledge, but I couldn’t offer them a way out. But later I realized that maybe just exposing them to an alternative classroom experience in which they question questions, learn from their fellow classmates not just their teachers and books, and relate their knowledge to themselves and their lives is enough to re-energize their curiosity and keep an open mind, the key to being a true learner.
As usual, I’ve rambled on for much longer than I intended to when I sat down to write this blog post while the movie was still fresh in my head… So to wrap it up… GO WATCH THE MOVIE IF YOU HAVEN’T YET! Though it addresses some serious issues, it does so in a remarkably human way, weaving comedy so naturally and giving you laughs and hope throughout the movie!
Until then, thanks for reading my rambles! :)

Monday, 23 July 2012

Musings at the Gandhi Ashram

Team member Julia Meyer writes about her thoughts at the Gandhi Ashram:

Piling seven people into a five person car (and five people into an eight person van),  we finally made our way to the Gandhi Ashram.  The premise is modestly designed: a series of bungalows overlooking blue, algae coated water.  The lake, now polluted, is entirely still.  I leaned my torso forward over the concrete ledge.  My vision of the immobile pool was perfectly framed by bridges supporting two-wheelers cascading their course.

The Mahatma's Room

            There was something about the image of the stagnant water encapsulated by the hurried vehicles.  Modernity rushing forward, pulling nature to a stagnant stop.  It was painful to watch, but there was something beautiful about the serenity of dead water.  I pulled out my camera to capture the moment.  Fumbling over the composition, I struggled to include both bridges and the detail of the algae coated blue.  I finally had to settle for two separate images: the first looked directly down towards the water, the second was broader view of the land-scape, however, even within these two photographs the color was less vivid and the lens was too far to capture the motion of the crazed two-wheelers.  Once the shot was on my camera the impact had disintegrated and the moment was meaningless.

            The previous night I had just finished reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, where she describes the fleeting power of a photograph.  Unlike a painting, a photograph claims to render the truth.  The viewer sees the image, is forced to consume the “diet of horrors,” but once the photograph is removed from their field of vision the viewer moves on, apathetically able to return to the routine of their daily lives.  The impact of these photographs is completely ephemeral.  Not only does the viewer quickly forget the power of what they have seen, the image also leaves them feeling helpless and unable to make any sort of change. 

            Last Friday in the workshop I was conducting we began a discussion about the difference between sympathy and empathy.  One of the participants explained how it is obviously easier to sympathize than it is to empathize.  She eloquently described how empathy doesn’t mean one has experienced said event, but it does mean that they are able and willing to imagine it.  Looking at these two images on the screen of my puny digital camera I’ve began to wonder the power of a photograph.  

For the past month all of the ITSA interns have been seriously committed to divergent, creative thinking, yet in many of the workshops I’ve found myself incorporating photographs and videos.  Of course, these are intended to motivate the students and when I watch the series of images I myself feel empowered to make a change.  But how long does the memory of these images last?  Our visual recollection is much weaker than the memory of our other senses and I worry that the moment the video or slide-show is turned off the sentiment will fade. We don’t have to smell a simulation.  A photograph does nothing for the imagination.  Sympathy is as ephemeral as a bubble and without the chance to internalize the pain, empathy is left dry.  These students are overloaded with images to a point where they’re rendered meaningless.  Occasionally there is the image that does manage strike a cord.  It will vibrate inside you for a moment like the string of a guitar shooting up your spine.  Traveling through your ears, it fills your brain with a painful hum, but as the vibrations simmer the sound numbs.  Imagination, however, digs us deeper and deeper into despair.  Embodied pain has a way of sticking to the soul and it’s our ringing core that pulls us into action.     

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Student & Teacher Workshops at SN Kansagra School, Rajkot Photo Journal

Here's a photo journal by team member, Natalia Choi, about her experience in Rajkot where ITSA went to work with The Galaxy School. 
Here is a brief recount of the trip:
Monday: 5 AM rickshaw-ride towards the bus stationt, 3-hour bus ride to Rajkot with booming bollywood music from movies, student workshops with 30 students at TGES school for 4 hours, dinner at Chokhi Dhani (an amusement park-like, “traditional village” experiencing place where you watch shows, ride camels, get your fortune told, dance at a discotheque with chaperones...) 

On the bus ride to Rajkot

Riana and I

Sites from an early 6AM bus

Student Workshop on Monday in Rajkot, talking about human rights, the education system, and social hierarchies

ITSA Team!

Camel ride in Chokhi Dhani

At dinner with our freshly done Henna!

puppet show

Tuesday: Early excursions to Hingolgadh to eat local Gujarati food, touch snakes, see wildlife, see old fortresses and villages

the snake man at Hingolgadh

real cobra

making friends

what I eat everyday

All the trees that you seen in this photo are connected as one tree

The group by the 600-yr old tree

new favorite hobby, swining like Tarzan on trees

seeing wildlife

lots of cacti

Martha making friends

the group visiting villages


Old palace

Cassie and I

Wednesday: Student workshop at a beautiful resort-like school then bus-ride back home to Ahmedabad

Workshop 2 at Rajkot

Our students at Rajkot

that is the school campus behind us, not a resort…

ITSA team!

On a school bus!

Monday, 9 July 2012

A day of ITSA-ing!

Just another day at the ITSA headquarters in Ahmedabad by team member, Arden Feil:

        This morning I arrived at Riana’s apartment around 11am to find the rest of the interns busy working on their curriculums for this Friday’s workshop. I quickly joined up with the rest of the Social Action and Justice team and we got to work planning for the workshop. 

Squeezed into the ITSA mobile!

Our upcoming session will cover gender issues and we made considerable progress in designing activities around the topic. After a nice lunch we all headed over the apartment in Paldi to continue working. Admittedly, by that point we were all a bit exhausted, so we were not nearly as productive as we had been in the morning. We relaxed and napped for a while (some of us even went in search of coconuts!) 

We did get a good amount of work time in too, and our lesson plan is pretty much complete for Friday. At about 6pm Riana and some of the India interns came and drove us over to Law Garden—a big outdoor market with vendors selling tapestries, clothing, and jewelry. It was definitely hectic and overwhelming, but also very exciting and exhilarating. A lot of the interns, including myself, found nice gifts to bring back for our friends and family. 

Colors! Colors! Colors!

Tejas helping navigate multiple sellers at the same time!

Neil getting his bargain on!

 We left the market just as it was getting dark and went to Swatti Snacks for dinner. We ordered a bunch of different dishes, which were all delicious and interesting to try. I’m now back at my host family’s house where I am enjoying some of my last nights before I move into the apartment in Paldi with the rest of the interns. Today was pretty calm and easy going; we got time to just hang around as well as have valuable preparation time. I think I speak for all of the interns when I say today was one of many great days we’ve had in 

Riana demonstrating to us the special technique to Pani Puri eating!

The Swatties (Swarthmore College students) pose under Swati snacks!