The Akshar School in the small town of Wai, India, is one of a kind. In a country where special education and resources for those with special needs are lacking, the institution has what India’s education system is missing: a working educational structure for children with special needs.
Established in 1982, Akshar School provides a safe, open environment for students with a variety of mental disabilities to receive an education they might otherwise miss.
Boasting a physical therapy room, speech therapy classes, and a vocational workshop, Akshar aims to set its students up with the means to lead gratifying lives. In addition, the school trains aspiring special education teachers, including the founder’s grandson.
Unlike the United States, which can still make further strides accommodating differently abled students, India has an even larger gap to close in providing structure for those who really need it.
According to Indiaspend.com, a data focused public-interest journal, while India has passed the Education for All Movement, a piece of legislation that promotes free compulsory education for kids between ages 6-14, approximately 600,000 special needs children in that age range are out of school.
Additionally, while 89% of children with special needs in that same age range are attending elementary school, the number drops to 2% after the American equivalent of 9th grade.
Meanwhile, India’s federal government instituted a policy where registered special needs students receive a certificate that permits extensive government assistance. Resources like free transportation, easy-access loans, unemployment stipend, and educational scholarships are available to those who register.
However, the combination of India’s lack of infrastructure as well as a functioning bureaucracy means that more than half of all special-needs students won’t receive any sort of assistance, leaving many to find menial work or no work at all.
With the help of former Salt Lake Community College board member and Maharastra native, Ashok Joshi, the Akshar School has facilitated the growth of countless special needs students. And for a few hours on a rainy August afternoon, SLCC study abroad students took time out of their day to be with those same students.
Drawing, playing schoolyard games, and exploring Snapchat filters SLCC students and faculty alike immersed themselves in unadulterated interaction with students of all different ages and needs.
Like the children they were spending time with the study abroad students couldn’t refrain from being their authentic and open selves. The reciprocated joy from the genuine connection between SLCC students and Akshar students could not be paralleled, not with personal achievements or unending financial means.
Fifty eager journalism students sit in a sterile room facing front.
As we enter the classroom, Marcie, a faculty advisor, and I find our seats at the front of the room and await the professor’s instructions. Without warning, he pulls two chairs to the front of the room facing the students, motioning for us to take a seat.
Within seconds, we’ve assumed the position of a panel taking questions and presenting our take on the state of journalism and misinformation in the digital age.
As we discuss ideology informed news reporting with a growing culture of misinformation, it doesn’t take long to realize that journalism and communication students around the globe are experiencing the same things: confusion and distrust.
Despite credible news sources like the New York Times, BBC or Times of India, students in this spacious classroom in suburban Pune, echo what I, as a journalism student, have thought and heard for the last year.
Students discuss the almost insurmountable hurdle of avoiding a culture of ideology driven reporting in an increasingly polarized world.
One student proclaimed something to the effect of “leftist (liberal) news outlets make it more and more difficult for conservative opinions to be heard.” A consumer of Fox News, he felt the current political culture among news organizations was an indication of an industry that no longer values objectivity.
Alternatively, another student retorted by suggesting that polarization wasn’t the product of specific news outlets and their political leanings, but a result of media literacy (or a lack thereof) and the fact that the digital age lends itself to confusion when it comes to the credibility of sources.
While these opinions are both valid, what stands out beyond any disagreements is the fact that these students care enough to discuss and examine the state of news media. Moreover, they are keenly aware that they will one day take part in a craft that is responsible for informing the public.
Additionally, they seem to have a strong desire to contribute in a way that’s ethical, even with differing perspectives.
This one conversation made it clear that the future of journalism around the globe is still intact and raring to bring young, principled journalists into the industry. These students like many of those I sit next to in Salt Lake Community College classrooms, show themselves to be the kind who take the time to consider how they might affect the people they serve.
With Salt Lake Community College students preparing to embark on study-abroad trips around the world, the value of exploring foreign cultures cannot be understated.
“It’s important to visit and see other countries, but the real value is in talking to people and getting different perspectives,” says Dr. Ashok Joshi, an eight-year veteran of SLCC’s board of trustees.
Joshi, who affably goes by AJ, has played a substantial role in facilitating SLCC and Westminster College’s involvement in his home country of India.
Since 2005, Joshi has been on a philanthropic spree, funding and building a total of four schools; three of which reside in the small town of Wai, India, one of SLCC’s study abroad destinations.
“Initially, I was just donating money to a girls’ school in Wai. But, after a few years, I realized I wanted to do more,” says Joshi.
Without hesitation, Joshi fully funded a small school capable of accommodating 300 students in Kenjal, another town in India. Though that may seem substantial, to Joshi it was a drop in the bucket, and with help from one notable Utahn, by 2007, plans for a brand-new school in Wai were set in motion.
“The governor at the time, Jon Huntsman, heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved,” says Joshi.
Within the year, Joshi was with Huntsman and his team in India, laying the inaugural stone for a school that could accommodate 1,800 students. And while the list of educational milestones Joshi has established for Wai goes on, he sees the most value coming from the individual exchange of interactions and cultures between SLCC students and their counterparts across the globe.
The Maharashtra Institute of Technology in Pune, India, which has ties to SLCC’s study abroad program, is particularly of interest to Joshi.
“Of course, there’s the service aspect of the trip, but when you have students from the most developed nation in the world interacting with [those who would be] their peers in India, they really get to see the depth and breadth of the culture there,” says Joshi.
Even something as simple as sharing a meal with someone you would have otherwise never met can yield immense wisdom, he adds.
In unison with Joshi’s outlook on experiences abroad, Ilana Ruben, a recent college graduate who spent time in Malaysia on a Fulbright Scholarship, says her most significant takeaways have stuck with her since.
“While some of the cultural expectations were emotionally taxing, the relationships I built were ultimately really rewarding,” says Ruben, adding that forging connections is due to more than simply speaking the same language or having similar customs.
“As an American immersed in a foreign culture, crossing cultural barriers is inevitable,” says Ruben, “but getting comfortable doing so is one of the most valuable assets a person can have.”
Undoubtedly, SLCC students involved with study abroad will be given an unparalleled opportunity to grow as global citizens.
Letter from a SLCC STUDY ABROAD correspoNdent
Cruising past an endless queue of grain silos and harvested farmland in Middle America, leaving Boston in favor of a cross-country move never seemed more futile.
For the duration of that four-day drive, I found myself on the proverbial treadmill, asking, “Have I just abandoned a city full of friends and opportunities for a place where I had no foreseeable prospects?”
Empty rumination aside, however, I couldn’t deny a notion that had been lurking in the back of my mind and kept me from downright turning the car around:
“An open mind opens doors.”
I knew that by seeking out and committing to as many relationships and opportunities as possible, the law of averages almost mandates that something will end up a worthwhile endeavor – and my time at Salt Lake Community College and The Globe is proving to be just that.
From taking a news writing course to covering the Sundance Film Festival, from editing last-minute Globe submissions to preparing for the job as editor-in-chief, every benchmark of progress and experience has been the result of an impulsive desire to grow.
Now, just hours away from an SLCC-organized trip to India, an opportunity of a lifetime awaits.
With the guidance of Globe faculty advisor and journalism professor, Marcie Young Cancio, I have been tasked with following SLCC entrepreneurship students in India through comprehensive field reporting.
The chance to tell stories and relay experiences alongside the sensory overload that accompanies visiting an unfamiliar environment stands a tall order, but an exciting one at that.
In retrospect, all those “yesses” informed my decision to take on such a challenge. Less than a year ago I couldn’t have envisioned a trip to India, and now I have the chance to travel through and document one of the most culturally diverse, economically robust nations in the world.
A charge to anyone who is reading this: commit to opportunities that push your comfort zone and you might find yourself doing things you never thought of.