After many meetings, missed phone calls, site visits, and diligent preparation, my project to enroll economically deprived students into a private school to enhance their education made a huge step in gathering the support to implement the program. This past Sunday my mentor and I met with the individual funder of the program (who initially presented the idea to SAFA) and together they signed the MoU (memorandum of understanding) to solidify the agreement. As I watched them trace the letters to their names, I couldn’t help but reflect on what we accomplished and the challenges that lay ahead of us. During the meeting we discussed some of the obstacles that may arise for these young, emerging leaders of their community:
In the Muslim community of Hyderabad it is often expected that women marry as soon as they are able. It is something both parents often take seriously, and is held as a high priority. Thus, education takes a back seat to starting a family. It is believed, too, that any extra years spent in school is a year without making any income. Education is not always perceived as an investment in the child’s future. The families are struggling day to day to make ends meet and the children are expected to add a source of income as soon as they are old enough. The longer the child waits to get a job, the longer the perceived struggle will be for the family. These two latter deeply held beliefs will shape how we build bridges between parents and child, child and school, school and parent. A strong emphasis on commitment and a vested interest in the child’s future will be key to the growth and progress of both the program as well as the child. A carefully designed screening process will help identify some of the qualities that are deemed to demonstrate commitment.
Additionally, getting support from the father is often the most difficult yet most important task. It is the father who has the last word. SAFA has done a tremendous job of including the paternal guidance of the family in its programs. In order for the child to participate with SAFA, they are required to obtain approval from the father. Both must visit the center at least twice before enrolling in order to see firsthand the operations and vision of SAFA. This invitation promotes accountability and trust. Personally getting acquainted with the teachers and the organizations helps prevents any misconceptions or misunderstanding between the two parties. This is a crucial partnership, and a step that we agreed should be included during the implementation of the program.
Finally, preventing children from dropping out will inevitably decide whether the program is a success or not. With so many strings pulling them from different directions due to social expectations and family responsibilities, the pressure for such young minds can prove insurmountable. Furthermore, the school will be a new, unfamiliar environment and can present its own set of challenges for the newcomers. The long distances from their homes, too, will create long, exhausting days. The program expects a lot from both the children and their families, and it would be unjust not to recognize the demanding work required to excel.
The vision of the project starts and ends with the children themselves. They will be the emerging beacon of a new generation of leadership for an aspiring minority that is often ignored by the rest of the country. The goal is to demonstrate the value of pursuing a better education. Their success will not solely be measured by the grades they receive at the end of the year, nor the amount of new friends they make. In addition to their academic performance and new social life, their success will also shine each extra minute they spend on a long commute, and every social and economic barrier they break through. The program will be designed so that SAFA and the new school will be there to help guide the children with a gentle hand. Yet, it is the youth that will prove to their community the wonderful opportunities education can provide when the right sacrifices are made to achieve it through empowerment, tenacity, and courage.