My Gap Year Teaching in India

By Alex Dingle

After graduating high school and before heading off to college, I had the opportunity to live in Pune, India for 6.5 months. When I heard back from colleges in April, Tufts University stood out to me because of its 1+4 Bridge Year Program, through which incoming first-year students have the opportunity to live in India, Brazil, Ecuador, or Uruguay with a host family and work in a service apprenticeship. I didn’t want to wait until after college to start making an impact and experience the “real world,” and the program would provide me with the opportunity to do this while also fostering a supportive community for my eventual return to campus. I knew I had to follow my gut and dive into the adventure of a lifetime.

For the Brazil and India programming, the Tufts 1+4 Bridge Year Program partners with a gap year organization called Global Citizen Year (GCY), which directs a seven-month-long community immersion program in India, Brazil, Ecuador, or Senegal open to any high school senior. The organization makes gap years accessible to all, with 50% of fellows receiving some form of financial aid and 30% on full scholarships, and places an emphasis on leadership, empathy, and diversity, all values that I hold dear to my heart. On August 25th, after a week of orientation with the Tufts cohort, the Tufts Brazil fellows and I headed to Stanford University for another week of orientation with the 150 members of the global GCY cohort. There I met the 18 other people I would be going to India with, heard from interesting guest speakers, and participated in different activities. On September 1st, we finally were off to India! When we first arrived, we were met by the five GCY India team members who were to be our mentors for the year. We spent a week in the countryside as part of the “In Country” orientation. I was assigned my Team Leader, Thuguri, whom I was scheduled to meet with at least once a month to make sure everything was running smoothly. We also had Hindi classes for two hours twice a week. Our GCY India team was incredible, and I am grateful to them.

After our week of orientation, I set out to meet my host family, the people I would be living with for the next seven months. To my delight, Celia, another GCY fellow, was living right across the street from me, which made exploring and commuting around Pune more easy and more fun. When I arrived at my new home, I let go of my apprehensions and allowed myself to be surrounded by warmth as hot as the fiery March sun. Over the summer, I had taken a survey to match me with a host family. I wanted a big one so that there would always be someone to talk to or something to do, and my wishes were granted: my host family is made up of seven wonderful people: Nana (Marathi, the local language of Maharashtra, for grandfather), Aaji (Grandmother), Atya (father’s sister), Ahie (mother), Baba (father), Pranoti (17 y/o host sister) and Priti (14 y/o host sister).  It was the family’s first time hosting, but our shared nervousness quickly evaporated over our love of sweets and “The Sound of Music.”

When I think about October, my mind immediately goes to all the festivals that took place. They made adjusting to India much easier because there was always something to celebrate and be happy about. From September 29th to October 7th was the Navaratri festival, which is a nine-day celebration for the goddess Durga. The teachers at my school and I all wore a color of the day to celebrate, each with a different meaning for the specific day. As we were just beginning to get to know each other, it was a great bonding moment with the school team. On October 13th, there was an auspicious day because of the full moon where parents are supposed to celebrate their children. My host grandmother and mother blessed my sisters and me by giving us gifts, and we then drank basundi (thickened sweet milk with saffron, dried fruit, and nuts) and talked for hours underneath the shining moon. It became one of my favorite evenings.

The biggest Indian festival is Diwali, which commemorates Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and the return of the Hindu god Rama after his victory over king Ravana. Diwali is known as the festival of lights (light triumphing over darkness), and to celebrate, people light different diyas (candles), string lanterns on their houses, and light firecrackers. The streets were magical. We had a two-week vacation from school and ended classes with another big dance party (my students teaching me the proper moves!)

I became enamored of India the minute I left the Mumbai International Airport, but November solidified this sentiment forever. I joined the same gym as my host sister and mom where we took Bollywood aerobics on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I began eating street food, pushing aside my fear of getting sick. I started making local friends by simply striking up a conversation at a coffee shop. I sang karaoke with friends and showed off my newly learnt Bollywood moves in dance clubs. I explored different streets and temples, allowing myself to become lost. I felt more alive than I ever had before, feeling purposeful each morning. I began to get more involved in my students’ lives, now spending six days a week at school vs. the required four. The government school I worked at operated from 07:15 until 12:00. Most of my students went to tuition classes in the afternoon, which is a common practice in India to receive further assistance on studies. In fact, my host mother was a tuitions teacher, and every afternoon children came to our home where she took lessons in the study. Each morning our students sang the national anthem, recited the Indian pledge, and did a fun warmup (their favorite dance was Baby Shark). I usually planned interactive opening lessons for my students when they were learning a new topic for English or Math to help them better conceptualize. While the school was technically an English school, all my students were at completely various levels as the school did not allow any child to be held behind. All their teachers, before Teach for India intervened, had sat at their desks and just made them copy from the blackboard all day. As a result, we had to focus on classroom behavior, so I came up with a points system for different clusters of desks. I also worked one-on-one in the hallway, alternating between different students. We had a half an hour break at 10:30 where all the teachers would gather and share food from our dabbas (lunch boxes).

December was a challenging but rewarding month. It started off with me spending two weeks alone with my students because a fellow teacher, Sindoori had taken leave for her brother’s wedding. She did not leave me many materials to prepare, and I was completely overwhelmed, to say the least. While I technically could have also not come to school during those two weeks as per GCY guidelines, it would have meant that my students had no teacher and were left alone. I wanted to show them that I cared about them, even if that meant just showing my face every day. I tried to plan lessons, but without Sindoori there, it was hard to get all 34 of them to sit in their seats and pay attention. Teach for India partners are called Didi (sister), and I truly felt like an older sister to them rather than a strict teacher. As a result, after many attempts and lots of pointless yelling, I resorted to drawing activities, Simon Says, and copying storybooks. While my students were delighted, I felt guilty knowing that two weeks of school was being robbed from them. After talking to my Team Leader, however, I was reminded that I could only do so much in the situation, and due to language barriers should focus on something all the students understood and liked. I came home every day exhausted, extending my daily naps from one hour to two. I became sick but pushed myself to come to school, even if it meant just sitting at my desk, in order for my students to know I was there for them. As a result of these two weeks, I became much closer with my students and gained more respect from them. It was also a period of growth for me, helping me realize just how much I was capable of.

January was my favorite month in India. After traveling to Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur, and Varanasi with my family and our guide, my grandmother and mother flew down to spend a few days in Pune. They immediately hit it off with my host family, sharing three delicious meals together. My students were so excited to meet them, as they had been asking me about my family since my first day of school, highlighting the important role family plays in Indian society. I took them to my favorite spots, including the Aga Khan Palace, where Gandhi and his wife were imprisoned following the Quit India movement. My heart was very full at having my new extended family together, giving me some of my happiest days.

After my mother and grandmother left, our school was busy preparing for Annual Day, an evening full of performances put on by our students for their families. This year’s theme was “Retro Journey Through Bollywood,” and Sindoori choreographed mash-up dances to different classic Bollywood songs. Celia and I spoke Hindi and welcomed the audience in different languages since India has over a thousand and most of our students’ parents had migrated from all over. We even did a little dance of our own, to the delight of our students! Teach for India also hosted a Model UN conference for students from older grades. I accompanied some of the 5th-7th graders (government schools end in 7th grade as the Right to Education Act only mandates schooling up until the age of 14) and helped them prepare for the different topics alongside my host sister Pranoti, a big model UN participant. They debated on international drug control and space warfare, with two even earning prizes!

One of my favorite parts of working with Teach for India occurred in February: going on home visits after school. The majority of our students lived in neighboring “slum” communities of the old part of the city where our school was located. Sadly, Pune is the third-largest Indian city with the most so-called slum dwellers, accounting for 22% of the population, or 3.2 million people. While it’s easy to have one picture in mind, each neighborhood was different from one another and deserves its own story and recognition. Visiting our students’ homes and meeting their families gave us better context to the student as an individual. They were always excited to guide us home and show us around. Sindoori translated conversations with parents, which showed us how invested they were in their child’s studies, provided explanations for why a student was late, or gave other background information. We always met with the mothers as fathers were out working during the day. They offered us chai or something to eat, which is customary for Indian hospitality. It was evident to me how hard the young mothers worked to do as much as they could for their children, given the circumstances. Most homes were the size of a small room where everyone crowded around, making it sometimes difficult to concentrate on studies, especially when the television was playing. Most did not have sanitation facilities. Our students told us they loved to play outside, and neighbors became family. A fair number of the neighborhoods had Muslims and Hindus living side by side, a rarity in the more affluent areas––and as a result, my school had a mix of both religions and different castes. This created more of a tolerant environment, especially with young children, reaffirming the important role diversity plays.

March was a slow yet busy month. My neighbor Celia and I worked tirelessly with our students on our community project (a GCY program requirement) which involved transforming a storage room into a library and recreational space. We accomplished this by moving items into another storage room in the school, sweeping and cleaning the dust, removing trash, and restoring the paint on the walls. None of it would have been possible without our students’ help and excitement, coupled with generous donations from our friends and family at home. Earlier in the year, thanks to so many people’s support, we had been able to repaint all the classrooms and halls that badly needed it, and we even purchased two more projectors for the school.

I was already not feeling ready to leave India at the program’s end in early April and was heartbroken when I found out it would be ending early due to coronavirus. I told my students that I would be leaving in a few days, not anticipating that the government would shut down all schools without giving a day’s notice. As a result, I was not able to properly say goodbye to each child that impacted me heavily and whom I love with all my heart. Luckily, I was still able to send daily fun facts and trivia through WhatsApp! I visited Tulsibaug, Pune’s biggest bazaar, right before it closed and bargained for souvenirs. I said goodbye to my favorite places and people, including the owners of the chai stand outside of my school. GCY had a day-long Program Conclusion that allowed us to say goodbye to the team and our friends. I spent every minute I could with my host family, busily making plans for all the future visits.

When I reflect on my time spent in India, one word comes to mind: gratitude. I am grateful to my parents for supporting my endeavor and letting their daughter live on the other side of the world before college. I am grateful for my family who cheered me on with messages and conversations. I am grateful to my teachers who cultivated a sense of curiosity and wonder in me to learn. I am grateful to my friends from home who celebrated my choice and asked questions. I am grateful to my Tufts and GCY India Fellows who were always there for me when I needed it. I am grateful to Thuguri for giving the best advice and motivating me when it was necessary. I am grateful to our country director Archana who so well demonstrates how everyday privilege can be used for the greater good. I am grateful to my Teach for India partners who are making the world a better place every day and embraced me into their school. I am grateful to all 34 of my students for changing my world and giving me something bigger than myself to take care of. I am grateful to all my local friends who showed me which foods to try, movies to watch, and where to go. I am grateful to my Aaji for always welcoming me home with a smile on her face and for her long hugs. I am grateful to my Nana for letting me read the newspaper with him and listening to his stories. I am grateful to my Atya for showing me how valuable curiosity is. I am grateful to my Baba for teaching me everything I know about Indian politics and for sharing the same search for justice I do. I am grateful to my Ahie for all her motherly advice and the kindness she shows to everyone she meets. I am grateful to my host sister Priti for showing me just how much can be communicated through a single smile. I am grateful to my host sister Pranoti for giving me a new best friend for life. I am grateful to Pune for showing me how to live. I am grateful to India for giving me nothing but love.

I will always remember waking up to the sounds of prayers and the smell of fresh breakfast cooking. Running down the stairs with my sandals unstrapped to catch my rickshaw. The drivers who looked out for me. The strangers who turned their staring into smiling on the street as I waved. The shopkeepers who asked me questions and told me about their lives. The Aunties and Uncles who fed me kaju katli and mango burfi. The stray dogs barking at night. The fruit vendors yelling outside my window. And so many more.

I came to India to explore a culture I knew little about and work on the front lines of the educational crisis. I returned with a new home and a renowned sense of purpose. Thanks to the experience, my definition of success has been completely redefined, and I have a much fuller understanding of myself and what I want my life to look like. I feel free, motivated by the endless tomorrows.