This past summer, I interned at the Pratham Institute for Literacy, Education and Vocational Training in their Mumbai office. I had spent the previous summer in Washington, D.C. learning about education policy and wanted to gain an operations perspective to providing quality education. Working at Pratham was exciting because it not only gave me an opportunity to work at one of the largest high-impact organizations in India, but it also gave me a chance to do it within the context of an unfamiliar culture. As someone who wants to work in education policy upon graduation, I knew that the interactions and experiences in India would hugely shape the ways I think about and treat communities that are not necessarily my own.
My main focus was to create and pilot a system to evaluate the quality and understand the specific strengths and challenges of Pratham's vocational training programs. Although quantitative data about the programs was readily available, I had trouble finding answers about the quality and needs of the program. Did students find their curriculum to be relevant and applicable to their jobs? Were employers happy with the students' preparation? What kind of additional support did the individual centers need from the administrative office? In order to answer questions like these, I created individual surveys for different stakeholders within Pratham.
Upon creating a survey to evaluate the centers, I decided to pilot them on the bedside assistance program. I visited the assistance centers and administered my surveys with a group of students, instructors, center heads and employers. With a translator by my side, I learned much more than just the quality of the programs. I learned about how mobilizers made more than five points of contact with families in order to convince them to allow their daughters to get educated and employers' thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of hiring students who had taken the bedside assistance course. Most astonishing was the adversity students fought in order to get their education and the transformations they went through as a result. Women who were no older than me moved hours away from home to get their education, despite it being a social stigma. Other women were given a second chance at life through the training programs. A woman who had lost her husband and never left her home was able to become financially independent after taking the bedside assistance course and getting employed.
Ultimately, I was able to provide recommendations to strengthen approaches to retention, curriculum development, and mobilization. Further, I was able to start turning some of my recommendations into reality. Upon talking to one of the center heads, I realized how crucial a male mobilizer was. One of the biggest challenges in getting female students to enroll was convincing fathers to give their permission for their daughters to enroll. Young females leaving home to work are hugely stigmatized, and it is often difficult for young female mobilizers to relate to and convince middle-aged fathers to allow their daughters to receive an extended education and work. We worked with one of the center heads to recruit a male mobilizer who could alleviate some of these challenges. The opportunity to pursue an idea exemplified how Pratham is a quickly evolving organization, continuously changing to best meet the needs of its students and stakeholders. I am certain the Pratham I know in a few years will be even more successful and far-reaching than the Pratham Institute I know today.
From taking 17-hour rides on a sleeper train to discussing the quality of courses with an instructor at the Ellora Caves, I've had experiences in India that will forever be engraved in my heart. I am grateful for the students who trusted me with their stories, the co-workers who invested time to teach me about both work and Indian culture, and the new friends who have made my experiences in Mumbai an unforgettable one.
Janie Lee is a student at Princeton University and is pursuing a degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Prior to interning at Pratham Institute's Mumbai office, she worked at the U.S. Department of Education. She hopes to continue pursuing her interest in education upon graduation.