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Journey to India Finds Path Less Traveled

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August 25, 2011 by wcobserver

Photo by Lindsay Johnson – Girls in rural India carry fodder to feed their animals in Anupshahr, India. Many girls still do not attend school and work on family farms. Mary Anne Sennett of West Fork has traveled nine times to India; her last two visits to Pardada Pardadi Educational Society, a mostly girls’ school that pays students to attend class. The school recently received a grant that will fund Mary Anne’s proposal for an English Language Center at the school.

By Susan McCarthy

In 1967 a young woman, fresh from college, made her first trip to India. She was idealistic and full of enthusiasm for the role she would play as a member of the Peace Corps. But her early days in India didn’t go as she had planned; the Indian women she had come to help pitied her. By their standards, she was strange. At 21, she was unmarried, she had no children, and she had left her family and her relatives behind. She found “they didn’t need anything from me.” And thus her quest began.

Over the decades, Mary Anne Sennett of West Fork has traveled extensively; nine times to India alone. One of those times, she worked for a year in India as a freelance journalist. She also worked and lived in Pakistan and Egypt, each for three years. She served as a director for an English Language Center in Pakistan and while she probably didn’t know it at the time, those years of experience would serve her well in India. Along the way, she has discovered much about herself and her journey has shaped the woman she has become. And, as you might have guessed, she found her way in India. She developed a love for the country, its people and food. But she also discovered a way to help girls who are less valued in rural India…girls limited by the caste to which they were born.

In Uttar Pradesh, which translates to North State, Mary Anne’s vision for a new English Language Center is coming to life at Pardada Pardadi Educational Society, a school of about 1,100, most of which are girls. The school is located 80 miles southeast of New Delhi, near Anupshahr, a small city by Indian standards even though its population is close to 250,000. Mary Anne says the Uttar Pradesh (UP) area is one of the least developed in India and while it is one of the wealthiest in terms of the Indian economy, it is one of the poorest in per capita income. She said Indians use a word that translates to “backward” when describing the UP and Mary Anne says it’s like stepping back in time at least 40 years.

“Most are farmers with small fields,” said Mary Anne. “They still use, by our standards, old ways of planting and harvesting.”

She says much of the work is done by scythe or by hand and that crops are bundled and carried on the heads of the harvester. Pigs still dart around the open air markets within the city.

Mary Anne first came to Pardada Pardadi in 2008 when she signed on with Encore, a non-profit organization that connects former Peace Corps volunteers to new assignments in their areas of professional expertise. She said she collected money from family and friends to pay her bills while she was gone and headed to Anupshahr to volunteer at the school as a teacher.

“I was the first volunteer to arrive there that knew the language,” said Mary Anne who speaks Hindi.

During her stint at the school, Mary Anne came to have an appreciation for the unconventional methods the school uses to get rural girls to attend school regularly while learning a vocation that presents opportunities beyond working in the fields.

“They don’t start to school on time. They start and drop out and barely make it to the next level. A 12 year old girl could be at a first grade level,” says Mary Anne.

To get these girls to attend school each day, the school pays each student 10 Rupees per day and it’s an all or nothing deal; if they quit, they forfeit their savings. If they graduate, they receive it all in a lump sum. Mary Anne says a student who graduates could have as much as 30,000 Rupees, which is not a fortune, but a start.

The school also provides three meals a day, uniforms, dental and medical care, and gives each student a bicycle when they’re about 12 years old. Even with such perks, it’s hard to get these girls to commit to being at school five days a week.

The school also teaches English and offers vocational training so graduates can get jobs in call centers, hotels, and fashion and design. Mary Anne says the students produce beautifully crafted pillow cases, bed spreads, and curtains and older girls learn to run sewing machines.

While students are taught some English, Mary Anne said the textbooks from which they teach lack methodology.

“It’s the worst thing that you will ever see,” she says of the state standard textbook. “There’s no rhyme or reason how it’s put together.”

While at the school in 2008, Mary Anne came up with the idea of an English Language Center, which would offer English immersion classes and computer aided learning to upper grade-level students of the school in hopes of garnering broader opportunities for the girls, such as teaching, when they graduate.

She says the school’s founder, Virendra, “Sam” Singh, became attached to the idea. After she returned home to West Fork, she kept in touch with “Sam” and after three years, she learned her proposal would come to life.

Earlier this year, Mary Anne learned the school had received a grant that would fund the English Language Center from a Swiss Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), ASED, which she said is largely funded by donations from Cargill, Inc.

Mary Anne returned to the school this May for two months; this time with paid airfare and a stipend to help get the groundwork in place for the opening of the English Language Center and Lab. During her stay, she took several trips to New Delhi to select textbooks, bouncing along rough roads that slowed the 80 mile trip to a three and a half hour ride each way.
She also spent much time training the three language teachers in methodology and how the structure of the language center will differ from the classroom. Two classrooms are under construction and will feature the only chairs and tables in the school.

“Everything is done from the floor,” Mary Anne explained.

The classrooms will be equipped with other luxuries including a television and DVD player and a white board. The computer lab will open with eight computers with plans to add 8 more at a later date.

“They wanted all 1,100 students to use the computer assisted learning lab,” said Mary Anne who ultimately convinced the school to narrow use to grades 8-12 so the students using the lab will get several hours of time there each week.

Mary Anne grew up in Rogers, Arkansas and credits growing up in Arkansas and the courage of her own parents for the paths she has chosen.

“The omnipotence of what I’ve done has come from my background, growing up in rural Arkansas, the courage of my own parents,” she said.

After her stints in Pakistan and Egypt, Mary Anne said she liked the idea of buying a house; up until then, she had never owned one. She said she had saved all of her money while living abroad six years and bought her place in West Fork.

In between her travels, Mary Anne works three jobs, all of them freelance. She said she is a representative for Townsend Press, traveling to a dozen or more conventions “all over the country” to exhibit their developmental educational materials. She also edits papers for University of Arkansas Arab students and serves as an examiner at the University for the International English Language Testing System.

In her spare time, she “gardens like crazy”, maintaining 30 beds of flowers and shrubs and she cooks…northern Indian cuisine.

Mary Anne says she will return to India to the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society next spring for two months and will get to see a once budding idea in bloom. She said if others are interested in a volunteering opportunity at the school, they can email her at mas6@windstream.net.

“If you live intimately in a culture at a certain age… I was 21…it transformed me, really. In a way, I never left India…I brought it with me. There is just something I found in myself there that I have cultivated over time.”

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