By Neil Desai
On a recent trip to India, I had the opportunity to visit a field site for AIF’s MAST (Market Aligned Skills Training) program. It is the cause that my local AIF Young Professionals chapter in New York voted to support for this year through fundraising and events in NY. Having been involved in those fundraising efforts for the past several months as a volunteer, I was excited to finally see the impact our work was having on the ground! I had no idea what to expect, but went in with an open mind.
I started my visit by taking a rickshaw to the University of Mumbai, where MAST has partnered with the Garware Institute of Career Education to deliver its programs. Garware is part of the University of Mumbai and serves as the largest provider of vocational education in the metropolitan area. I was lucky enough to sit down with Professor Anil Karnik, the Director of the Institute, who explained to me more about this partnership. What I learned is this: The MAST program at Garware utilizes the same high-quality professors and curriculum as Garware’s regular programs, but is offered to students for a nominal fee of just ₹1,000 (ca. $15). The purpose of the fee is to ensure students are invested in the program, and is actually significantly less than the cost of books, business wear, and other materials that they receive. However, there are also scholarships available for those who cannot afford even this nominal fee. The program has an emphasis on reaching traditionally underserved populations, and so students must have a household income below the poverty line – and in most cases – must also be the first in their families to pursue any kind of post-secondary education. Additionally, MAST has dedicated staff who visit disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the city to meet directly with prospective students. This is important because, especially for those who are the first in their family or even first in their entire neighborhood to pursue something like this, they might have doubts about the benefits of pursuing an education, or might struggle to understand the application process, or might never have imagined themselves having access to such an opportunity. By meeting with these students directly, MAST ensures that it reaches across social barriers in addition to purely economic ones, and benefit those who most need it.
After the meeting with Professor Karnik came my favorite part: meeting the students themselves! MAST Garware offers three courses: Retail Management, Jewelry Design, and Travel Reservation. I had the chance to sit in on a class for Travel Reservation, where the room was packed thanks to full attendance. The level of dedication that these students had was truly impressive, as every one of them was asking questions, taking notes, and remaining highly engaged for the entire session. I wish I had been that studious in college! Even more impressive, however, were the stories I heard afterwards from some alumni of the program. One student, Sunil*, graduated in the first batch of the Retail Management program, had found a job soon after completing his course, and within a year, had been promoted to an Assistant Manager position. Another pair of students, Salim* and Meera*, who are brother and sister, had also found jobs and used their combined incomes to move their entire family into permanent housing for the first time. These stories really made me appreciate just how transformational of an impact MAST can have on peoples’ lives – not just for the students themselves but for their entire families! It also made me prouder than I’ve ever been of my volunteer work back with the AIF Young Professionals in New York, raising money to support these amazing programs.
Reflecting afterwards on everything I had seen and learned during my visit, I realized one other thing I was proud of. AIF has a very different approach from most philanthropies. It does not necessarily seek to create things from scratch, but instead partners with people and institutions on the ground who are already doing good work and already have the capabilities and local ties needed to work effectively, but perhaps just need funding to scale their impact. This does two things. One, it allows AIF to focus on what it’s good at, which is finding the people and organizations who are most in need but who are doing the most impactful work. This allows AIF to ensure that its resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible, which is always an important consideration for any charitable organization. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it also restores agency to the people on the ground, creating a much more sustainable foundation for continued impact. AIF could have structured this program in a way that involved MAST directly hiring all the staff, designing the courses, renting the classroom space, etc. – and indeed many similar organizations have traditionally operated in that way. Instead, by partnering with Garware and with similar institutions throughout the country, AIF’s MAST program not only improves its effectiveness, but also ensures that the program will not solely be dependent on continued funding. It also builds a foundation of people at Garware who specialize in working with disadvantaged populations, skills that might one day be leveraged in the rest of Garware’s programs as well.
Overall, my visit was both enjoyable and eye-opening. I’m excited to continue my support for AIF, and hope to do so with even more passion than before!
I am grateful to Shilpa Borkar and Chetan Somkuwar, who met me at Garware and guided me throughout the day; as well as Sheryl Shankar Sinha, Niresh Kumar, Aamir Aijaz, and Katja Kurz, the AIF staff who worked in the background to help facilitate my visit. Thank you!
(*) Names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.