Our project aims to help 5th-12th grade male students who are academically, socially, and economically underprivileged attain a better education in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. These students are children of “ scavengers,” a term used to describe workers engaged in sanitation-related work such as sorting through garbage, cleaning public toilets, sweeping public streets, etc. Additionally, these children often belong to families of lower castes; the resulting stigma and lack of basic resources hinder their personal and professional development. Our partnership with a local government officer in Tirunelveli helps us address this inequity by allowing us to support the “Residential Skill Development Training Center” (RSTC) that the students currently reside in. At this facility, students not only receive boarding, meals, and academic support, but they also have the opportunity to engage in extracurricular programs, which are all amenities that they typically have limited access to.

The goal of our partnership is to provide additional support in the following areas that will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper: internet access and digital literacy, designated study spaces, and extracurricular involvement. Instead of being an organization that simply provides capital as support, we hope to maintain a long-term partnership with our community through regular calls for needs and impact assessments, as well as continued relationships with the students as they grow personally and academically. Our progress thus far has mainly been focused on assessing the community’s needs through (1) informational interviews with Mr. Govindraj [Director of Facility] and Mr. Kandasamy [Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officer] and (2) open-ended interviews with the students, which, overall, has assisted us in developing our project mission.

Our first meeting with Mr. Kandasamy took place on 1/28/2023, where we introduced ourselves, our mission, and were informed about the students in Tirunelveli. As a direct follow-up from this meeting, Mr. Kandasamy provided us with a document outlining the community’s demographics, needs, and an overview of the Residential Skills Training Centre (or Residential Facility). We learned that the students are in need of educational support to break their cycle of educational disparities, and providing them with computers, furniture, and games would help support them in this direction.

On 2/19/2023, we organized a WhatsApp call with Mr. Govindraj and spoke directly with the Tirunelveli students, where we learned about their ages, interests, daily routines, and desires for the Residential Facility. They further expressed interest in computers, library furniture, and games. In the next few months, we spoke with multiple NGOs such as Asha Chennai, SOLA, and Shanti Bhavan’s Children Project to glean insight into providing educational support through virtual programs (such as computer literacy) and to understand how other facilities sustainably support underprivileged students. We hoped that these meetings would inform which resources to provide to our students, ranging from tutoring services to fundraising initiatives.

A notable turning point in our approach occurred after a meeting with an optiMize mentor, Sangeetha Janakiraman, who lived in Tirunelveli and has supported many social innovation projects. When she learned about our plan to provide computer technology to the students, she encouraged us to ensure that Internet access was also available–a prerequisite that we had not previously considered–as stable Internet is often difficult to find in rural areas.

In September 2023, we sought to participate in the Barger Leadership Institute’s Social Transformation Fellowship to generate support for this initiative. One of our major tasks was to create a holistic budget that compiled the quantities and product recommendations of computers, furniture, Internet plan, games, and uniforms we plan to provide. This budget was discussed thoroughly with our contacts, comparing it to estimates on their end, and parties agreed to spend the funds accordingly.

From January-March 2024, our primary focus was to transfer initial funds to India. Funds were transferred through an Indian-based bank account, with small initial installments to test the reliability of the process. The amount sent was roughly $5000 to provide 10 computers, Internet installation, desks, chairs, uniforms, and games (with surplus for taxes). Our contact is in the process of purchasing these items and has communicated that they will send over receipts and other documentation in the upcoming weeks.

Currently, our team is discussing the progress of purchases. Before these purchases are made, our contact is carefully measuring room dimensions in order to ensure suitability. We have received an interior design layout of the proposed e-library–a room with arranged seating, lighting, and computers with room dimensions–from a designer under Mr. Kandasamy’s recommendation. In April 2024, we learned that the students are eager to build their computer-literacy skills. We have agreed to speak with the students biweekly beginning in July (after their school break), and during some of these meetings, we plan to provide workshops that facilitate their learning of digital skills, such as learning the parts of a computer and performing work-related actions (sending emails, using Microsoft Office, and writing resumes).

We have created a few strategies to ensure the sustainability of our project. As part of our digital literacy training, we are partnering with a local non-profit organization (Asha for Education, Chennai). This organization has created a detailed digital literacy curriculum that the organization's volunteers will teach over the course of a school year. By connecting this organization with our community partner, we are helping build a long-lasting means of providing digital literacy workshops to the students. In the future, Project RISHI will no longer need to serve as an intermediary and the 2 parties will be able to communicate on their own to coordinate the workshops. Additionally, the materials that Project RISHI and Asha provide to our community partner will be accessible to the community indefinitely. This greatly increases the students' ability to continue learning important digital literacy concepts in future years.

Lastly, we believe that the students themselves are the key to sustainability. After our first group of students complete the 1-year curriculum, we highly encourage them to teach the next group of students in the community. Not only does this help the teaching students by solidifying their understanding of the content, but it also inspires the younger students in the community to take a renewed interest in their community and continue this legacy.

As with any community-based project, we learned the balance between staying true to our vision of alleviating educational disparity while adjusting to changes required by the community. After learning from mentors about Internet accessibility, we adjusted our budget and recommendations to include this for our community. Although we knew we wanted to teach the students about computer use, our goals were reinforced by their direct request to learn this information; it has motivated our team to work on beginning these projects as soon as possible. An important result from this month is a clearer expectation of regular meeting times with the students (as opposed to reaching out ourselves to initiate communication)--it was difficult to maintain consistent communication with the students while planning the logistics of the project, but we realize that the focus is spending time with the students. Our next few months will be spent planning schedules and workshops in order to readily meet the students this summer.

Summer 2024 Update!

Project RISHI - Tirunelveli Education Project recently completed the construction of the computer lab in the residential school. Currently, the students are developing digital literacy competency with the aid of an onsite technology teacher at the school. They have also planned monthly Zooms with the children this fall to host workshops and mentorship meetings. Check out some images of the infrastructure and the students using the computers for the first time!