Welcome!

24 Aug

Welcome to the website of the Carnegie Mellon Social Change Semester!

The Social Change Semester brings Carnegie Mellon students from Pittsburgh to Qatar and India. Our goal: to learn how to change the world by partnering with those who are already making a difference.

DSC01333The semester begins in Doha, Qatar, where we live at the CMU-Qatar campus and collaborate with migrant workers from South Asia. While teaching these workers English, we learn from them about Qatar, South Asia, and the inequalities of travel. We learn to recognize the privilege of studying abroad when many travel out of necessity.

From Qatar, we fly to rural central India, where we live at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Maharashtra. We work with a rural development organization, the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, to carry forward Gandhi’s legacy. We assist the Bajaj Foundation and its village partners with projects in water management, alternative energy, women’s empowerment, sustainable agriculture, and village industries.IMG_6301

From Sevagram, we travel to one of India’s largest cities, Chennai. There, we partner with educational organizations that focus on educating and empowering underprivileged children: the Avanti Fellows and Visions for Global Empowerment. Throughout the semester, students take courses and conduct research, while designing and implementing service projects in collaboration with our local partners.

IMG_2272By directly engaging in the many challenges and opportunities facing Qatar and India, students gain the confidence, purpose, global awareness, and intercultural skills that are best learned via service-based experiential education overseas.

We learn with our partners how to mobilize social innovation in pursuit of social justice. Together, we leverage CMU’s resources to advance the work of our community partners in Qatar and India.

If you would like to know more about the Social Change Semester, please contact Nico Slate at slate@cmu.edu or read below the student blogs from our last semester.

New York, New Normal

2 May

It is cold here and eerily quiet. Somehow, the chaotic city I left behind in January feels mild and appears infinitely more organized. Self-consciously I wonder if this means that the city now regards me as the tumultuous one – it would only make sense. I talk patronizingly slower now, use shorter sentences, and exaggerate all of my hand gestures. Habitually, I even elongate the pronunciation of my words and overemphasize the letters “l” and “m”. I continue to procrastinate unpacking the single carry-on-seize luggage that I lived out of the entire semester. Not because it is a difficult or time-consuming task, but because when I unzipped my suitcase I found that it smelled like India. And, I am just not ready for that to change.

 

Admittedly, I expected life to stand still while I was away. A slightly selfish and greatly impossible expectation, I am now left with the task of adjusting to a new normal. In order to navigate this “new normal” I must re-evaluate what I want my role/place to be. I mean . . . I too failed to remain the same. I arrived back to New York blessed by experiences that shaped my understanding of friendship, hospitality, courage, and the value of education. My teachers: Akash & Suraj, the women of Vijayagopal, the Tiger Group, the Avanti Fellows, and the Sustainable Social Change Family. Half of a world now separates me from almost all of these remarkable and inspiring people. It is difficult not to fear what comes next.

 

A poem by Mira Malathy, a fierce twelfth standard Tamil student, reminded me to push past my anxiety –

 

“My aim is to become a I.A.S officer.

I know that my dream is big,

but I should have to achieve that.

Many kind hearts are there to help me.

I have to utilize their help to grow.

Many struggles will come in between,

it is okay. I have my strong mind.

If I may fail at my first step,

I will not give up my ambition.

I have my own slogan in my life

that is “heart-ly faith never

falls or fails” I hope that

I will achieve my ambition one day!”

 

These last four months in Qatar and India were only the beginning – a first step. The second is carrying forward the legacy of sustainable social change in the United States.

 

Along the way, I am certain “many kind hearts are there to help.”

 

- Alexandria Hernandez

The Evening of 25 April 2013

25 Apr

We’re about to go to our final meal together. As I write this, I have about 50 minutes before I am to meet everyone in the hotel lobby.

Spending so much time in hotels recently has got me thinking about the transience of life. Hotel rooms, for me at least, are an ideal representation of this transience – a metaphor, you could say. I think about how people have lived in this room before me and will live in the room after I leave. I put my clothes on the shelf, I put my toothbrush by the sink. I am made to think, for the time that I spend here, that this room is mine. Make yourself comfortable. My sink. My shelf. My chair. My bed. It’s not mine. It never was.

Not even the things that I actually own will be mine forever. My shoes will wear out. The strap on my backpack will tear. My watch will stop working. I will have to choose to repair these things or buy new ones, but in the end it’s all the same. They’re all just things that I use, and none of them are permanent.

The same thing goes for relationships – familial, romantic, friendships, you name it. And I don’t mean this in a completely pessimistic way. I just mean that not everyone will be in our lives forever. Heck, we won’t even be around for forever. People move away and go to different places, people die. We are all together for a certain amount of time, and that’s it.

 

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It is neither good nor bad. This is just how it works. We can be thankful or resentful, we can fight and try to change it or we can accept it.

One of the things that we can control is how we allow these relationships, our interactions with the world and with each other, to affect how we act and how we see the world.

The police officer takes another bribe.

The young man walks with his grandmother to the store.

The girl checks her younger sister’s head for lice.

The beggar receives a handful of potato chips from a passerby.

And I move to my next hotel room.

- Marcy Held

Diversity: a way to define India

14 Apr

A month ago, right after we moved from Wardha to Chennai, a friend of mine asked me to describe India to her. It was a tricky question especially since we witnessed a drastic change moving from a simple rural area in Maharashtra to a big city like Chennai. It was one of those questions that, by then, I wouldn’t have simply used a word or two like “it is amazing” or “it is mysterious” to describe it. My reply was as follows: India is a mixture of everything: poverty and luxury, rurality and modernity, chaos and tidiness, dirtiness and cleanliness, simplicity and complexity, illiteracy and innovation, spiciness and regularity, shortage and infinite hospitality, and the list goes on! But there was actually a word that could have summarized all of these lines. That word would be Diversity, a contrasting and paradoxical one!

comparing 2 streets

I was first exposed to the Indian diversity when we were in Warhda. We were living in a peaceful Ashram where many people with different backgrounds, religions and beliefs used to visit. That cultural harmony and coexistence was very delightful and impressive. People who lived in Wardha spoke different languages too. The two main spoken languages were Marathi and Hindi. I remember also when we were invited to attend the women collaborative celebration of the International Women’s Day, when we entered the tent I noticed that each woman was wearing a beautiful dress or sari with distinct color from the one sitting next to her. The view of these leaders sitting next each other in a harmonic way was really fabulous and reflective on Indian’s diversity. Apart from that, the trees were different and varied, the buildings were heterogeneous and painted with different paints and even animals of the same species didn’t look alike.

colors

Exploring Chennai was different from exploring Wardha. Back in Wardha everything was distant from each another, we had to travel in cars for miles and cross many fields to reach a certain village or place. In Chennai things are close, more congested and more superimposed. At first we tried to discover the city through walking. It turned out that it wasn’t a wise decision because this city, like the city of Doha, is not a pedestrian friendly one. So we ended up taking taxis or rickshaws for our small trips. And I have to admit it, having a ride on a rickshaw is so far the best part of my stay in this place. Through those rides I enjoyed a taste of adventure and at the same time was able to look closely into the city through the open spaces on each side of the vehicle.

rickshaw

I saw people hanging out in fancy cafes and eating in fancy restaurants while others were collecting leftover food from the trash and sleeping on the floor side by side with the dogs. I saw people entering the malls and spending their money on unnecessary stuffs while others were lining up in front of a hospital or a temple with wide-open hands ahead of their bodies begging for ten or five rupees. I saw drivers cruising with their air-conditioned SUVs with confidence as if they were the kings of the road honking on any obstacle on their way while the rickshaw, the motorbike and the bicycle drivers were racing and zigzagging through the empty spots to fill in the blanks. I saw the minarets of the mosques and heard the calling for the prayers and I saw the temples with their fascinating architecture and designs and heard the Buddhist and Hindus chants, and I saw adherents walking in to worship in both places.

temple

I came into the realization that diversity is certainly one of the aspects that make the modern India. We find it everywhere in this country: in states, religion, language, food, clothes, colors, and ethnicities. It is also the gap that separates the wealthy from the poor. Diversity is meant to enrich and empower nations and communities and for this concept to be fully absorbed, along with diversity there should be unity, unity against corruption, against violence, against poverty and against injustice.

-Mariem Fekih

The Sweet Stench of Service

10 Apr

“It feels like entering an indoor, heated swimming pool. It’s just missing that chlorine smell,” Wesley says.

“Eww. You’re right,” Marielle agrees.

The echoing sounds of children’s laughter and the palpable waves of heat truly do bring a swimming center to mind. We’ve just left the oasis of air conditioned taxi and are now preparing to enter the Chennai Girls Higher Secondary School, where Avanti Fellows holds its after school programs. Avanti Fellows is an organization that provides a variety of mentoring and learning programs to supplement the education of students from low income families. We’ve currently teamed up with them to expose the students to something a little different than the STEM and rote learning they’re use to.

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Sweats pushes our clothes towards our flesh, wet stains growing large and round near the most attractive bits of our bodies, that is the armpit and lower back. Five minutes out here, and now we smell as if we haven’t showered in days, despite the daily -sometimes twice daily- bathing rituals we take part in. We glide across a sandy field towards the school building. Large feet try to avoid tripping over the narrow steps as we go up and around. This staircase doesn’t quite spiral so much as it takes sudden, sharp turns. At last, we reach the classroom where the Avanti Fellows’ students wait for us.

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The teenagers, all in 12th standard, sit clustered together towards the front of the room. Young men in collared button downs segregate themselves to a few tables. The rest of the desks are filled with young women. Their garb is far more diverse. It ranges from western dress to colorful kurtis, salwars, dupatas, to abayas and a mixture of the bunch. As we enter the classroom, some students wave and invite us in on their conversations. We say “hello,” “how are you?” and listen closely as they ask us questions about our lives. The small talk soon ends, when we split them into groups. One, Two, One, Two, they count off. Some students try swapping places to ensure they’d be in a group with their friends; others simply sneak into the other group when they think we aren’t looking.

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Now we begin the workshops of the day. Every week we cover new subjects. Thus far topics have included poetry, environmental issues, public speaking and social entrepreneurship, just to name a few. Each lesson the students challenge us as we challenge them. This mutual learning process makes the fact that we are damp and reeking completely worth it. Especially, when a young woman writes a poem for the first time, and in it shares the struggles she’s faced in order to continue her education. Or when applause erupts after a student delivers a speech in perfect English on how to combat corruption in his society. It’s worth it because these students now have an opportunity to know other ways to learn, and luckily enough for us, they now have the opportunity to teach.

Family

1 Apr

group photo cmu cmuq and bajaj

No one wants to admit when they are missing the comfort and security of home and family. I love India, travelling, the group, and the work we are doing. Honestly, I would not change where I am, but I do miss my family and friends at home. I think there is a lot to learn from being homesick.

Being away from home always reminds me of the true meaning of family. I have been an aunt since I was five years old. Family has always been a significant part of my life. Throughout my life I have always wanted to be defined as something more than just a “family person.” I always thought that being a family person meant that I was defined by my family, or that I can’t be my own person. This trip has made me realize that’s not true. I am a family person, but being a family person to me means that my mind works by thinking of families. Throughout my life I have created many families. I have my biological family, my parents, brother, sisters, nieces , nephews and extended family. I have my best friends in Pittsburgh, who are a second family to me. My family members are the ones who are always there for me no matter what. My love for my family at home has only increased while I am away.

Traveling has reminded me that family is what you make it. Our group has become a family. We don’t always get along. We bring out the best in each other, and sometimes we bring out the worst in each other. But at the end of the day we are all on a journey together and we are there for each other. Being a family is about understanding, supporting and accepting one another. I’ll always remember our “sharing night.” We formed such a strong sense of family as we sat at the ashram around a candle sharing music, stories, art, etc. That night we all went out of our way to understand each other, but since then we have all supported and accepted each other subconsciously.

We have created many families on this trip. We have created families with Akash and Suraj, the Bajaj Foundation, the Women’s Collaborative, the Visions students, the Olcott students, and the Avanti students. Families are communities where you love and respect each other. I feel so lucky to have not only made friends but also created families on this trip.

-Marie Avilez

Visions Leadership Camp — Tirukoilur, Tamil Nadu

26 Mar

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy (or happy at all) to be in a room filled with 50 screaming, crazy, sweaty middle school students all on sugar highs, but the Global Party we organized for the Visions scholars was one of the best moments of the entire week. We started off the event by passing out cookies and soda to each student, a brave decision on our part if you ask me. We cleared a dance floor and though it took a little bit of coaxing, Regan did a great job of getting everyone dancing to the tunes he was playing from his cell phone through the microphone. Soon, all of the students and the volunteers were pulling out their best moves in a complete whirlwind of colors, laughing, whistling, shimmying, and total grooving.

These kids all come from extremely disadvantaged families and communities, and many of them have faced more hardship than I likely ever will. It was a joy to provide a space for them to exercise their kid-ness to the fullest extent. It was absolutely a day that I will always remember, and I’ll be lucky if I ever become as good of a dancer as any of them.

-Molly Berntsen

By the end of the camp, my hands were raw from multi-step high fives and my body worn down from the Global Party, but it was all worth it.

Watching these kids transform a classroom of chaos – with miscommunication, nervous behavior and intermittent inattention – to a hub of productive and pointed organization churning out events and good ideas was inspiring. Most of the time, I just did my best to get out of the way of their unstoppable energy. Sometimes all an individual needs is a little space to realize their own potential and I truly believe that the Visions camp was exactly that.

As someone who is interested in the way that a new generation of young people can become a positive force in changing the changing world, you can often find me extolling the virtues of my own generation – the Millennials – and the possibilities of a different world as we come into our own.

The week at the Visions camp showed me that these future generations will keep that positive energy coming. There are some new kids on the block and they’re sharp, driven and ready to take the world by storm irrespective of their group’s gender, race, or background. Watch out.

- Daniel Nesbit

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Visions Leadership Camps strive for students to gain self-confidence through fun activities, a simple premise that is complicated to implement. The camp is successful for two reasons: the children’s eagerness and the meticulously planned workshops led by a dedicated team. Greg Buie, our Visions coordinator, created and refined an entire curriculum of leadership profiles, games, and activities that are translated into beautiful Tamil books given to each student. He also established partnerships with two dynamic translators, Reagan and Satish, which made a profound difference in communicating with the kids.

But Greg, Reagan and Satish were guides rather than instructors, giving both the students and the Social Change Semester group freedom to learn, experiment and resolve on our own terms. Rather than claim that the students underwent a transformation during those five days, they were simply given an environment in which they could be their energetic, creative selves.

Visions has established a unique and enriching experience for disadvantaged children that should be used in other contexts, such as the United States. The workshops help kids break out of their school’s rote learning methods and teach them to be their own teachers. Students learn that they don’t have to wait until adulthood to make a difference in their own communities, which is an encouraging message for  both them and our Social Change Semester group.

- Marielle

Edited - for Social Change blog

One of the pillars of effective teaching is effective communication. This is because learning happens when students understand something that is communicated to them and it changes or shapes the way in which they experience the world.

It was a really interesting experience participating in the Visions Leadership Camp in the role of an instructor and being unable to speak the language that the students speak. The words that they heard me say were my own, but they were a version of my words that had passed through many cultural and linguistic filters. I didn’t realize the full magnitude of this when we began, but having engaging and thoughtful translators really helped things to go as well as they did. Not only is it difficult to communicate to a group through a translator and still be a teacher (and to be the translator relaying this information), but it is also difficult to communicate to a group of kids who are in the process of becoming adults but are still kids, and to get them to work together, to believe in each other, and believe in themselves.

I guess that all communication goes through multiple layers of influence and interpretation, it is just that at the Visions Camp some of those layers were more apparent than they normally are. For me, this experience drew more attention to alternative forms of communication other than what goes on verbally, and I always think it’s nice to reaffirm the place of importance held by goofy dance moves within the world.

- Marcy

Sirya and Mariem

The Visions Leadership Camp was certainly one of the highlights of our stay in India. We started off the camp by taking turns introducing ourselves and telling interesting things about ourselves. I mentioned how I was looking forward to learning new things from the children and how I was very excited and happy that I finally had the chance to meet one of my childhood dreams: teaching!

When I was a child, and whenever I was asked about my dream job I would always say that I wanted to be a teacher. Sometimes, I even pretended to have my own invisible class and I had a whiteboard in my room that I used to study some subjects. As I was explaining the lesson to myself, in my mind it was dedicated to “my class”. Growing up, I completely put aside that dream and never consider it to be my future career anymore. But it is funny how things turn out and how life leads us to live our own old desires and choices by coincidence. I finally got to teach an actual class with real pupils in India. That experience was challenging and tough to some extent, but certainly joyful and unforgettable. By the end of the five days, I realized how hard to be a teacher and how hard to control young energetic children, but once that skill is acquired nothing is more enjoyable and noble than to pass your own knowledge to younger generations eager to learn about your experiences and about the world.

By the end of those five days, I also learned new Tamil words and sentences. It was so remarkable and impressive the way the young children taught us their language. They were seizing the tiniest opportunities to sit by our sides and ask us to repeat a Tamil sentence or word several times. That repetition process worked very well and whatever I was taught through that methodology wouldn’t be easily forgotten.

The Visions Leadership Camp was a great opportunity for me because I was able to teach high school kids, and at the same time learned new skills and met new great people.

-Mariem Fekih

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“When do you leave for America?” Jilkghih asked.

“One month,” I answered.

He responded in Tamil, and I searched my group of tiger cubs- a term of endearment for Tiger Group members- for a translator. One of the girls, Divya, giggled, “You take him to America?” Jilkghih pointed at me, himself, and the group. He didn’t only want the trip for himself, but for all of them. Some students focused intently on decorating posters and making badges for the poetry reading they’d organized for that afternoon, other’s listening to our conversation began to giggle. For them the idea of traveling to America was so intangible it was a joke. The request was enough to risk a bit of eye rain. This would be our last day with them and the hardest part of the Visions camp for me- leaving. I’d finally learned the names of all my tiger cubs and was even beginning to pronounce the names correctly. The week had gone so fast, each day packed with lessons and activities. The stress from busy schedules and the usual social issues that come with large groups of teenagers was nothing compared to the tensions on this last day. This end was the infuriating part, simply because I’d not get the opportunity to know them better.

-Tahirah Green

With boisterous voices and fierce attitudes, I watched as Silambarsan V., Manikanadan S.T., Divya V., Psathishkumav, R. Vertrivel, S. Sabina, S. Sudhakar, Jayasurya C, P. Salomya, J. Jlikghih, and Kumutha recited our group cheer: Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap, Tiger Group, Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap, RAWR! The pride all eleven tiger cubs exuded on our final day together was both tangible and contagious. But, then again, it would have been nearly impossible NOT to be completely overwhelmed by love and admiration for each and every tiger cub. Watching them all grow more and more empowered over the course of five days was nothing short of a privilege. S. Sabina, our Home Minister, took the first steps towards pushing past her fear of not being smart “enough” to be a leader, taking meticulous notes during all of our meetings and presenting them to the entire camp. P. Salomya, our Finance Minister and quietest group member, found the confidence to M.C our group’s poetry reading. Silambarsan V, one of our most rambunctious group members, began to not only give others the opportunity to share their thoughts but also listen closely to what others said. Although a week has passed, I remain in awe at just how phenomenal they all are. My only regret is that I will not have the chance to continue watching each tiger cub grow further into the beautifully intricate and individuals they are.

- Alexandria Hernandez

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Our time with the visions camp has hands down been my favorite week so far this semester. To me mentoring programs serve many purposes; the most important is making sure the children know they are important. At times it was hard to tell if they understood what we were trying to teach about diversity, teamwork, or the other lesson. However, when I saw they were smiling I felt instantly reassured that this experience was meaningful for them. My favorite moment was when they were thinking of the cheers. Our team decided to say “Right, left, success” giving a thumbs up. While the other groups were a little more creative, what mattered to me was the smiles from ear to ear that each of the kids had when they said SUCCESS! This week taught me that everyone will find their own meaning in mentoring programs. Some people will be more interested in the lessons, while others will find meaning in the opportunities provided to speak up, lead a meeting, or come up with a cheer.

-Marie Avilez

Appearance-wise Gokulraj was eight.  Behavior-wise Gokulraj was eight.  But in reality, he was thirteen years old. His small frame and ever eager expression never failed to bring a smile to my face. When he wasn’t struggling to stay awake during lessons, he would sit quietly smiling away. Initially, he wouldn’t say a word. By the end of the week, he would be sitting up straight and tugging on my shirt hoping to read the next passage in the lesson aloud. The transformation seen in these kids throughout the week was absolutely remarkable. They went from requiring explicit instructions of what to do to wanting to take charge and being willing to volunteer for anything. It pulled on my heart strings to see one of the most timid boys in my group get up in front of all of the students to sing a song for the talent show. What impressed me most is the resilience of these kids. After everything they have been through, they are still able to be so loving, generous, friendly and happy. These kids were absolutely inspiring.

-Asha Thomas

Visions leadership camp was one of the most enlightening and meaningful experiences I have had in India so far. The transformation between the first day of the program and the last was like something from a lifetime movie. All of that passion and brightness could so easily have gone unearthed. It was was inspiring to see how little it took, and sad to see how little it took to create such an enormous impact. It made me wish the world was smaller, and plane tickets were cheaper so that opportunities like these could become as frequent as they are special.

I remember wanting so badly to say and do the most impactful things possible. I wanted to fill every parcel of time with “teachable moments” and waste no words on anything that was not utterly profound. But half way though the training I began to understand precisely what my most valuable asset was-my ears.

What moved these children most was not the material we taught them, or the gifts we gave them. It wasn’t that we traveled 8000 miles, and spent 45 minutes on a bus every morning to teach them. It was that we had done all this to create an exchange.

The beautiful thing about Visions camp was that our daily mission was not to simply impart knowledge. It was to tease out the autonomy, the perspective, and the initiative of each child. The goal was never to leave my voice bouncing around inside of a child’s head but rather to let him know that it was okay to turn up the volume of his own.

-Wesley Hall

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