I grew up in a small village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Living in a village had its perks- playing in the mud, throwing stones on guava trees, plucking tamarind, catching fish with shawl were the activities which kept me engaged during childhood. Come adolescence and I had my encounters with the male dominated society in my village and family. I rarely talked to men and did not voice my opinion in front of elders.
At 13, Ashweetha Shetty chanced upon the autobiography of Helen Keller, and counts it as the life-defining moment for her. A realisation dawned upon her – the power to transform life lies within me and no one else. Ashweetha was good at studies and was always fascinated with teaching. She started helping her friends in the neighbourhood with studies and later started a tuition centre for kids and taught them the basic subjects in a group of 15-20. As the strength of the class grew, so did her confidence.
Ashweetha’s parents are beedi (hand-made local cigarettes) rollers.
My parents are illiterate and are not aware of education, so there was a need to struggle and convince my parents every time I wanted to go up the ladder of education. Circumstances were adverse but I was fortunate to have been blessed with parents who now understand my choices for life.
College and dreams
English was not her forte. There isn’t an ounce of hesitation when Ashweetha says, “Though I am a gold medallist through my Bachelors in Business Administration from a college in Tirunelveli, I don’t have much knowledge about any of the subjects I studied. I just memorized because everything was in English. Good handwriting got me good marks too.”
Always fascinated by the world outside, she believed that one day she would go to the best institution and learn from the best professors. She would often tell her mother ‘one day I will go to college’. Ashweetha’s mother response always was ‘first finish high school’. Ashweetha says, “She did not mean to discourage me but to make me understand it was too big a dream for a woman.”
In her final year of graduation, she read about the Young India Fellowship in a Tamil magazine. And then it was almost like the universe conspired to give her what she desired most – a librarian helped her create an email id; one of her friends lent her a phone every day to fill her application and for the telephonic interview; she had no money to travel to Delhi for the final round, so the interview board arranged for a Skype interview that was conducted in a nearby town.
The first time she spoke English in her life was during her telephonic interview. She was 20 then. Ashweetha got accepted to the programme and left for Delhi. What she hadn’t prepared herself was for the sudden change of pace in all aspects of life. “Initially, I felt inferior. I was shocked when I experienced the city life. I faced difficulties in understanding some lectures because of the American accents of some professors and it was very difficult for me to grasp. I faced difficulty in articulating my thoughts in English.” Not one to back down, Ashweetha spent more time with the professors, gained such command over the language that today when she speaks, she is not only articulate but also profound. The Fellowship opened her horizons. “It taught me to accept the differences and respect people for who they are. It empowered me and honed my speaking and writing skills in English. The peers encouraged me a lot and treated me well. I made friends for life.”The conscience came knocking
Post the Fellowship, Ashweetha worked as a ‘Community Engagement Manager’ at Sughavazhvu (SV) Healthcare, a social enterprise focused to develop models for delivery of affordable primary healthcare to rural India. As a part of her job, she developed content and conducted awareness sessions in schools and colleges about Anaemia and Cardio-Vascular Diseases.
Good education and a respectable job, isn’t that the dream? Ashweetha felt something was amiss.
While I was working there, I questioned myself constantly – What am I doing with the education I struggled so hard to get? What in the world needs to change? What differentiated me from my friends who are still suffering in the village struggling for a suitable career option?
She found that she had marched ahead in life because of two differentiating factors – exposure to opportunities and improved soft skills.
The birth of Bodhi Tree Foundation
Ashweetha went back to Tirunelveli and founded the Bodhi Tree Foundation to empower rural graduates, by imparting soft-skill training and exposure to opportunities. Ashweetha adds, “We believe rural graduates can be trained and equipped to communicate with others, develop their self-esteem, and learn to take responsibilities for their actions, and make informed decisions. We also believe our intervention will help create true leaders who own the local dreams and make their village a better place.” They conduct 3 hour awareness sessions about opportunities – fellowships, scholarships, government jobs, private jobs, entrepreneurship, etc available for rural college graduates. They also conduct focused two day training programmes on professional development for Arts and Science students and a course on positive attitude for polytechnic and engineering students.
Gandhi Mathi, who studied BBA from the same college as Ashweetha is one of the many students who has benefitted from the programme. Gandhi’s progress is commendable. She converses with everyone wonderfully well with only a few grammatical mistakes. She says, “I am from the village, I didn’t know English at all. The sessions focused on communication helped me understand the importance of English. I now don’t get nervous. They did my SWOT analysis and I’m learning to work on my strengths and conquer the threats.”
Ashweetha says that the programme is successful only because of her team of three heroes – Balaji, Sebastin and Padma. The team has had a huge impact in it’s one year of operations – 2500+ students attending awareness sessions, 600+ students trained for professional development and positive attitude, 20+ colleges contacted, a library in their office for rural students, partnerships with many similar minded organisations e.g. LeapForWord with whom they aim to improve the English learning among rural school students.
And miles to go
Ashweetha is an Acumen fellow as well. She talks about her experience, she says, “It helped me to understand myself better and to find my voice in this world. The other fellows are a support system. They understand the language I speak, the problems I face.”
Plustrust supported Ashweetha for her personal expenses during the initial days of setting up the Bodhi Tree Foundation. She was also awarded with the Mother Teresa YIF Social Enterprise Scholarship which has helped her sustain the venture. In addition, she has been able to raise money through some individual donors. She’s now looking at raising more funds to expand her reach, team, and programmes.
Ashweetha’s dream is to live in a nation where there is no rural-urban divide based on human knowledge, skills, resources and opportunities. Bodhi Tree Foundation is a step towards achieving that dream.
With every passing day, I remind myself how fortunate I am to have a life which so many people in my village, including my own sisters, didn’t get, a sense of independence and freedom to spread my wings, claim my dreams and shape my world.
His brother died of drug abuse; he started CAN Youth to help dropouts and underprivileged children in Nagaland