From the Hill to the Himalayas
When Associate Professor of Music Steven Nuss saw a PBS television special on
the Gandhi Ashram School four years ago, he knew that going there was
something he had to do. Now, each January, Nuss takes 21 students to
Kalimpong, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas in the North-East
corner of India for what is officially known as MU267. Those who have taken the
course, however, know it as a life-changing experience.
"I had never been to India before four years ago, but I felt something....When you have that strong sense of intuition [you have to go with it]....Sometimes it pays off, and this time it paid off," Nuss says.
A Jesuit Canadian priest founded the Gandhi Ashram School in 1994, and today the Jesuit community continues to fund the school from overseas. According to Nuss, the coeducational school of 150 has "the poorest of the poor" students. "Students at the Ashram [are] only accepted at that school because they can't go anywhere else." The Ashram educates students from kindergarten through the seventh grade.
According to the Ashram's website, "The purpose of this school is to develop the human resources potential of the children of illiterate parents....It aims to give a good formal education and at the same time, through extra curricular activities and work projects, to have each child find out where his or her talents lie." The school focuses on teaching English and music. It provides its students with the unique opportunity of learning the violin; each child from first grade onward studies the art. When Nuss learned of this school, something clicked. He knew that working with the Gandhi Ashram would be "such an amazing way for the music department...to partake in civil engagement."
Participants in the class, however, are not limited to the musically gifted here on the Hill. College students design and teach classes during the Ashram's winter term, heavily emphasizing English comprehension and Western music. Students must go through a rigorous application and interview process to obtain a spot in this popular JanPlan class.
This year, "the school has asked that whatever subject is being taught...really enhances--strengthens--their English," Nuss says. Subjects in the past have run the gamut from martial arts and art projects to ballroom dancing and group read-alouds. Musicians in this JanPlan "teach how to produce an idiomatic western sound....[It's] parallel to learning good English," Nuss says. Judy Merzbach '11 went to the Ashram in the winter of 2009. For Merzbach, the entirety of her time overseas was an incredible experience. Outside of the classroom, College students make fast friends with their students and are frequent guests in their homes. "We really got a chance to explore the culture in our opportunities to go home with the students," Merzbach explains. An education minor, she found that "teaching in a different culture with a language barrier provided an amazing challenge that really helped develop teaching style and made me reflect on the American education system." "This experience was incredible," Caroline Turnbull '10, an alumna of the program, says. "It planted a seed in my head concerning the type of work I want to pursue for the rest of my life."
Turnbull taught English and earth science to her dedicated students. "I loved reading aloud in the afternoons to the kids: Dr. Seuss picture books." Since her time in India, she "was inspired and re-energized to get involved [with] Colby College's Adults Reading to Children program."
Turnbull recalls her first day teaching at the Ashram, which she describes as "punctuated with unanticipated misunderstandings and chaos. Picture this," she says: "28 Nepali-speaking first-grade students gazing in astonishment at two optimistic, English-speaking teachers." By the end of their time together, "the mutual respect between us and the young students was immeasurable. Together with the students, we had built a safe community classroom where our leadership skills could be focused and valuably received." Mischa Noll '11 taught math to third graders. "The India program was intensely challenging, but in a very different way than traditional classes. All we were trying to do was to give these kids the best experience possible. Through work, play, and visits to the kids' homes and families, we were given a unique experience to see India through the eyes of the locals," she says. The conditions that the JanPlan participants live in are not easy. As Nuss says, life in Kalimpong is "quite culturally different....We're up in the Himalayas...with no indoor heat...[and] not much hot water....[We live on a] steady diet of North Indian food." It is "a very, very busy and challenging schedule," Nuss says. "I'm not overly sentimental about these things, but I've just been so impressed by what Colby students have been willing to do....[The experience has been] really rewarding." "We've been through a really intense experience together....I've seen a number of changes in students," he says. Kalimpong is "quite economically disadvantaged," according to Nuss. On top of financial hardship, there are "lots of cultural issues" that the Gandhi Ashram students and their families face. Because of the village's location in the Himalayas and its close proximity to many surrounding countries, many of the villagers "do not look like the Indians in the South," Nuss explains, which can lead to job discrimination in greater India. Their experience at the Ashram gives them a leg-up. Learning the violin, in particular, gives the children "a little something extra."
Nuss has been inspired by the students' "tremendous level of pride and dignity...the joy in the students who have nothing materially....The common conception that to be poor is to be depressed and without dignity is not the case."