Commentary

Niswarth Hoops: Context Matters

Context matters. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook are all ways through which the Niswarth Hoops students were connecting with family and friends during our time in Chennai. These types of social media offered ways to share images, short stories and brief comments about our diverse set of experiences. These included playing basketball games with blind children at the St. Louis School, teaching math lessons in fifth-grade government classrooms, visiting a culturally historic site, documenting the devastating floods, enjoying a very nice Thanksgiving meal with other Americans in Chennai and even hanging out at a rooftop pool.

It can be challenging to capture and to share the inner transformations that took place using communication via social media. I saw Andover students developing an expansive view of humanity, being inspired by smart, creative and determined people and organizations, rediscovering and prioritizing personal values, understanding issues such as inequity, gender, education and sport in a fractal manner and living the values of gratitude, humility and teamwork on a daily basis.
We often move quickly from brief observations and bite-sized pieces of information to judgments as we try to understand complex and sometimes contrary images and comments. This can lead to an incomplete understanding of a complex experience.

How can one learn about the context of our experiences in Chennai? Discuss the program with students and faculty, ask questions, read the meaningful written reflections on our blog, engage in communication with our partners, understand the impact of our visit and observe carefully what students are thinking, feeling and doing as a result of their experiences. Niswarth Hoops participants also have a responsibility to add context when sharing pieces of the story. We cannot reduce inherent complexities.

Given some chatter, and misunderstandings, about one part of our program, I’d like to share my perspectives regarding our extended time at the Chennai airport. Due to heavy rains on our way home, we were unable to leave the airport for 52 hours. It was a challenging time, not knowing about our next meals, having limited access to clean water, determining a safe exit strategy, no Internet, spotty cellphone coverage, lack of communication from airlines, airport authority, military, no communication from a U.S. Consulate, sleeping on dirty floors and seeing the visual devastation of flooding all around us.

Our priority was to ensure the safety and health of our team while determining the best way to get back to campus. We were in constant communication with Andover and it was determined that our best course of action was to remain at the airport. Given the circumstances, even with all the resources in the world, it would not have been safe to leave. It was quite humbling. So, we stayed, and while it was challenging, we consistently thought about the plight of the Chennai students who we met during the program. We were grateful for staying dry, having each other for support and knowing that we would eventually get home. After many ups and downs, we were eventually the last ones to leave the airport with other international travelers on busses out of Chennai to the adjacent city of Bangalore. It was a set of unique and intense experiences that we are still processing, so please be patient with us.

I would like to thank the Andover administration, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, students and friends for supporting us every step of the way in the final stages of our unexpected journey. We received every one of your good wishes, and it made a world of difference to keep our spirits up and remain connected with all of you. We are grateful to have the opportunities to learn about ourselves through our thoughts, feelings and emotions, to understand people and places very different from Andover, to return to campus to build on our experiences and to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Dec 10, 2015