Laxmi Rajak '15

I am currently a senior at Duke, double majoring in International Comparative Studies and Mathematics, and minoring in Education. I am originally from Nepal. My experience with service-learning at Duke began my freshman year, when I was enrolled in a focus program called Knowledge in the Service of Society. As a part of the program, I took a class called Rethinking Schools: Social Justice. The course provided me an opportunity to connect the classroom experience with real life situations throughout the semester. I worked at Central Park School as a tutor to a second grade student, and apart from sharing my knowledge with the student, this experience opened my eyes to the pertinent issues that Durham schools face.

Inspired to engage and learn more about the social justice issues that today’s schools face, the following summer (2012), I traveled to Mumbai, India to work with an NGO called Door Step School (DSS). Under the Community Engagement Program, I assisted over 100 slum and street children with Math, English and Hindi. I also organized health awareness programs, field trips and a cultural dance show to enrich student learning. Working closely with the community, I was able to see the daily challenges the children face in accessing a quality education. I also realized how important DSS’s work is for preventing these children from growing up into illiterate adults. And it makes me happy that I made a little bit of contribution towards it.

In the fall, I enrolled in a course called Educational Psychology, to understand the effects of socioeconomic background on the psychology of the children, and consequently on their academic performance. The tutoring experience at Lakewood Montessori Middle School, gave life to the theoretical underpinnings of the topic. It also gave me an opportunity to further reflect on my Mumbai experience.

The following semester, I spent two months in India through the Global Semester Abroad program. As a part of my class, Development and Poverty in India, I worked closely with the Gandhi Manav Kalyan Society (GMKS), and conducted a field-based research in two villages in Rajasthan. Having been inspired by the education courses, and previous experience in India, I decided to examine the reasons behind the dropout of students in Indian primary and secondary schools. The work entailed the designing of the questionnaire, traveling to the villages, and conducting interviews with village leaders, parents, and students. In the end, I presented the findings of my research to GMKS in the form of a 22-page research paper.

The summer (2013) work at WISER, Muhuru Bay, Kenya was a continuation of my quest in engaging practically with the educational theories I learned in classrooms. During my time in Muhuru Bay, I provided remedial classes in three subjects to eighth grade students to prepare for their national standardized test. Seven of the girls I taught won scholarships and currently attend WISER’s secondary school. As I reflected on my experience, I was able to see how the socio-economic structure has shadowed girls’ education in the community, and how important WISER’s work has been to uplift their educational status and transform them into leaders.

Other service learning courses that transformed my Duke experience include Foundations of Education and Children, Schools, and Society. Both of these classes gave me an opportunity to deeply engage with potent educational issues that the world faces today. Similar to the other courses, these courses also allowed me to further my work in Durham community. As part of the first course, I tutored at Durham Nativity School, and for the second course, I tutored at Crest Street Tutorial Project.

Aforementioned service-learning experiences, local and international, have been instrumental in shaping my thesis, which examines lower caste (Dalit) students’ school experience in Nepal. I worked closely with Teach for Nepal (TfN) to conduct the research work in Nepal in the summer of 2014. While the thesis isn’t a direct service in itself, it hopes to fill the gaps in the existing literature by emphasizing and analyzing the heterogeneity of Dalit students’ school experience. Furthermore, the lessons that I learned through service-learning motivated me to co-found a program called Karsh Mentorship Initiative (KMI) in 2014, with a mission of running experiential camps for high school students in Nepal to promote civic engagement and leadership development, followed by year-long distance mentorship and college advising. I thank our mentors Ana Barros, Betsy Alden, and David Malone whose support has been critical in KMI’s journey. More information on the program can be found at: www.karshmentorship.org.

Upon my graduation in May, I am returning back to Nepal to establish an on-ground team and local programming support for KMI. In addition, I feel honored to have been selected for the Hart Fellowship Program. As a Hart Fellow, I will be conducting a community-based research project that will evaluate TfN’s impact on Nepali students. I am excited to apply valuable lessons that I have learned through service-learning experience at Duke, and engage more deeply with social and educational inequity that Nepal’s education system faces today.