My highlight of the summer before Senior year? 10 Andover students, eight PA faculty members, three weeks and all that is Mumbai, India. A week after classes ended, I boarded a plane to India to participate in PA’s Niswarth summer program, and the experiences I had there have stayed with me ever since.
This year’s theme for the program was education and development in India, and we wanted to investigate the nature and purpose of education in India as well as the roles that young people can play in transforming education.
While we in no way attempted to completely answer these complex and often controversial questions, we did spend a lot of time and energy having reflective discussions and engaging in personal writing that helped us come to terms with our own views and opinions regarding this theme.
Amongst the frenzy that is now Senior fall, I often find myself reminiscing about my Niswarth experience. I sometimes find myself marveling at the clarity and thoughtfulness we all cultivated over the course of the trip.
While the majority of Niswarth was based out of Mumbai, we spent a weekend in Bangalore, and the experiences we had there stand out to me because they succinctly embody the larger mission of the program. Central to our time in Bangalore was the Ashoka Foundation, a global association founded by Bill Drayton ’61, which has given rise to many of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.
According to the Ashoka Foundation website, “Ashoka strives to shape a global, entrepreneurial, competitive citizen sector: one that allows social entrepreneurs to thrive and enables the world’s citizens to think and act as changemakers.”
I only vaguely remember the time when Drayton addressed the entire PA community at an All-School Meeting in 2009, but even now the inspirational vision of this foundation remains vivid in my mind.
Ashoka actively seeks out and supports motivated individuals who have innovative solutions to social problems. Though it sounds straightforward enough, the slew of lingo that Ashoka uses to describe itself sometimes complicates the perfect simplicity of its efforts.
For example, at the crux of Ashoka’s mission lies the idea of “social entrepreneurship,” which, despite heated discussion, the group of PA students, faculty and Ashoka employees could not succinctly define. According to Ashoka, “social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems.” Throughout our time in India, we observed that this definition is far too simplistic.
In many ways, social entrepreneurship cannot be defined because it cannot be quantitatively measured. It’s a difference that isn’t purely financial but rather brings about a repeating, functioning institution that creates change.
That got me thinking- at the basic level, isn’t that the function of a summer program like Niswarth? While we may not have monetary resources or logistical liberty right now, year after year this program begins to create ripples of change in the communities it visits. More importantly, it plants the seeds for immense personal change and growth within ourselves. Niswarth made us social entrepreneurs, if only for a moment.
The analogy can be extended even further. Ashoka has helped coin the term “changemaker,” though instead of using it as a cliché, the foundation deliberately and effectively incorporates it into their core values. Ashoka strives to create an environment and network in which changemakers can thrive and succeed, thereby bringing about important social change and approaching “social entrepreneurship.”
This idea also applied to Niswarth: by exposing a diverse group of PA faculty and students to the complexity that is Mumbai, we created an exciting dynamic through which we could discuss the many obstacles faced by the world’s fastest growing nation.
I felt the promise of our program repeatedly: when engaging with Gateway House (India’s first think-tank), when discussing the intricacies of the India-US relationship at the American consulate and even when struggling to control a classroom of 40 eight-year olds with our rudimentary Hindi.
Whether I was in a classroom at the American School of Mumbai discussing the limitations of the Indian democracy to enact sweeping social change or in a crowded bus with a view of the dramatic Mumbai skyline, I felt like I was a young person going through a transformative experience with a team.
I realized that what we did on this program was essentially Ashoka’s definition of innovation: by bringing about a creative adaptation to a particular context of an existing problem, I felt empowered to fully engage with everyone around me.
Looking back, I find it almost ironic that the Hindi word “niswarth” neatly translates into non sibi, or “not for self.” I can say with confidence that the Niswarth experience changed who I am as a young adult and as an Andover student. As clichéd as it may sound, it’s for that reason that when someone come up to me as asks, “How was Niswarth? Did it totally change your life?” I simply take a deep breath and smile.
To learn more about the Niswarth program and hear from the other students who participated this summer, be sure to attend “Niswarth Night” this Friday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in Kemper.
Supriya Jain is a four-year Senior from Foxborough, MA.