A subcontinent educationThe poor of India change a young islander's worldview.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:51 PM
"Justin Isaf went to central India's Mahindra College to study, but he learned more from community service than from books.In nine months, Isaf said, I changed from your standard teenager - interested in sports, going to a four-year university and right into a high-paying office job - to someone who just wants to raise money and awareness for community projects in rural India.Isaf, who graduated this week from Bainbridge High School, won a scholarship to study for two years at the Mahindra branch of United World Colleges. Like other students at the UWC - comprised of 10 international schools for high school-age students scattered across the globe - Isaf had to do community service.He found that some villagers, especially the so-called untouchable caste, lacked even the most rudimentary facilities.I come from the upper middle class - it's all very clean and so on, Isaf said. Then, all of a sudden, you're thrown into the rural Indian setting with the closest village a 50-minute walk away.Everything's completely different. It's a culture shock in every way.Isaf came to realize that it is not easy for conservative rural Indians to accept the varied customs of students from 70 different countries. The Mahindra school is only four years old, and villagers are still skeptical, he said.The school's local projects help, though. Isaf and other students built toilets, workshops for special-needs youths, and three primary schools last year in local villages. Social activismThe projects become social events, he said. Children gather to laugh and observe, villagers to offer tea. While no one speaks the same language, and one might hear Hindi, Mahrati or Spanish in addition to English, people still communicate.Despite the connections forged, however, cultural differences emerged. For Isaf, the still-pervasive sexism of Indian society was a major jolt.He watched labor requiring brute force being done by women, while men supervised. He saw that only men performed skilled labor or taught. In response, Isaf helped organize the revolutionary Sadhna Women's Village, a project that has Indian women open a joint savings account, into which they each put five or 10 rupees a week. Over time, the women built economic clout, although some paid for their temerity with stints in jail.If going to India was a culture shock, coming home was even more of one for Isaf.Going there, you're prepared, in a way, for things to be different, Isaf said. When you come back, though, you get this one big slap in the face. The things you didn't think about before - like what you have and how you live your life - you start thinking about. Isaf is less certain of his future now than he was before his India junket, but believes it involves service in one form or another.I used to be 'Mr. Academic,' he said. Now I've changed to think I'll probably do international studies and work for the Red Cross or the UN or something like that.What began as hands-on construction in India has grown to include instigating and running Mahindra College's current fund-raising campaign. Isaf is helping raise $100,000 to fund construction projects for villages.If we can raise that amount, we can run off the interest, Isaf said. We can build three projects a year.For information about Isaf's fund-raising, call 780-6863. "