It is 9:16 a.m. and I am already sweating.
My calf-length skirt sticks to my legs as I slide out of the cab, inhaling the fresh air of a side street while choking on the remnants of crowded morning traffic pollution still in my lungs. I need water. Somehow, my lukewarm water bottle fails to satiate my craving for just one frosty glass of iced water, an amenity I can’t risk until returning home. I can still hear honking in the distance, but my mind is no longer focused on the fear of dying a horrible, mangled death at the hands of an unknown taxi driver on the other side of the world. It is 9:20 a.m. in Kolkata, India, and I am pleased to be early for work.
The halls of Manovikas Kendra are quiet this early in the morning: in a city where punctuality is not a crucial trait, many children will not arrive for another twenty minutes. Class itself begins at 9:30, but rarely do students dressed in the uniformed shirts and shorts wobble into classrooms before 9:40. There are, however, the exceptions, and on the way to class I overtake Raja, a hyperactive four-year-old with sharp cheekbones and thin ankles, his mother in tow. I smile at the pair and follow them inside.
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Our classrooms in the Outpatient Department at Manovikas constitute only a small portion of a room; wooden panels partition the room into fourths, with three classrooms and one open area with a table and chairs. With children ranging in age from three to seven, this small space is all we need to conduct an early intervention class for the eight autistic children I work with every day.
Raja, his mother, and another parent-child couple are already inside by the time I shake off my sandals and plop down onto the mats that cover the floor. Pretending to be shy today, Mishti is both the only girl in my class and the youngest. A little over three years old, her serious eyes and plaintive cries of, “Ann!” when I work with any other student won me over a week into our two-month stay. The mothers chatter on as my class fills, and I busy myself with tickling Raja, who giggles and tries to evade me while Mishti laughs in my lap.
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Ten minutes pass and my teacher, Saroja, enters in a shalwar kameez suit. The majority of teachers wear this tunic and legging outfit in lieu of saris to work every day. Saroja rules the classroom with a firm hand and a patience that I attempt to duplicate amid the bedlam of fits, tantrums, and spurts of erratic laughter. The hour and a half passes quickly, with a strict schedule of activities that include dance, music, daily academics, and weekly visits to the multi-sensory room.
After our first class, I work again in Saroja’s second class of the day. For another hour and a half I work with children with a variety of disabilities including autism, Down’s syndrome, and developmental delay. Many of the children in the second class come only once or twice a week; one girl and her mother travel seven hours from rural West Bengal for classes once a month.
Brad, one of the five other students working at Manovikas, usually accompanies me during these classes. Altogether we are ten, with six at Manovikas and four at Future Hope, a nonprofit boarding school for street children. While the ten of us love our work and the formidable new trials and satisfactions of India, we would not have had this opportunity without our school and a very generous grant.
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Commissioned by Duke University, each of us was selected from a competitive pool of applicants last fall for DukeEngage
, an eight-week immersive service program focused on a vast range of civic engagement activities. The DukeEngage
Kolkata program involves working with organizations dedicated to both underprivileged and disabled children, while others concentrate on topics such as global health, social justice, and environmental advocacy. Other sites include programs hosted in South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Virtually anywhere you can think of, DukeEngage
provides airfare, housing, and funds for students to spend their summers performing service on the national and international spectrum.
My point? Every college has grants, and whether it be for education, medicine, public policy, or any other subject, this money is available to all who are driven enough to apply. Yes, the application process may seem daunting, but why waste time worrying when you could be writing your personal statement, one step closer to traveling, working, and being funded to do what you love?
Do your research. Explore the options at your school and online; you may be surprised to discover a number of departments and programs that award grants to students in any field. Sometimes all it takes is a quick search to get you started on an experience that could change your life.