Far out of their comfort zones, students help make a difference
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Class of 2015 members (from left) Paige Kopp, Graye Robinson, Sarah Rutkowski and Emma Sander volunteered in India this summer.
One alumna’s passion became a once-in-a-lifetime experience
for students this summer, when four members of the class of 2015 flew to India to work with some of the region’s most desperately
They volunteered through CommunitiesRising (CR), an NGO founded
five years ago by Betsy McCoy ’77 that provides after-school programs and summer camps for children in rural India. Working side-by-side with fellow volunteer camp counselors from the U.S. and India, the students soon learned what it's like to live on the fringes of Indian society--and what can be done to help.
The trip was instigated last spring by McCoy’s niece, Graye Robinson ’15. As she shared her plans to join her aunt in India during the summer, fellow classmates Paige Kopp, Sarah Rutkowski and Emma Sander offered to pitch in. After a few orientation sessions, the students boarded a plane for India in May, expecting an adventure. They found it, and then some.
"The culture shock hit as soon as I got off the plane," says Rutkowski. “There were
so many colors—people, animals, cars, motorbikes, straw and cement homes,
litter, roadside stands, celebrations, saris, bare feet, advertisements,
highways—and, generally speaking, movement at every moment.”
And those where just the cosmetic novelties. While the students stayed in a hotel that was comfortable
by local standards traveled in an air-conditioned vehicle—a
welcome respite from the 115-degree heat—they left most first-world conveniences at home. There were hole-in-the-ground toilets to contend with, cold-water showers delivered via bucket and
trash that rained down, at unpredictable times, from upstairs windows to the
But it was the experience of getting to know the campers that proved both most wrenching and most enjoyable. The children were Dalits, born into the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. For the majority, the summer camp marked their first experiences outside of their small, rural villages, where resources and prospects are few.
Beyond that zone
Working side-by-side with CR staff members and Indian and
American student-counselors, the Dickinsonians helped lead courses in English
language, socialization skills, swimming, arts and crafts, computer literacy, robotics and dance. Along the way, they helped prepare village children for
success in higher education and beyond, in part by introducing them to new skills and in part simply by acting as near-peer
role models who could help the children envision a wider world of opportunity.
The counselors also did their own share of learning.
They donned saris and attended a student's First Communion ceremony, learned Indian dances,
visited a Hindu temple, rode in rickshaws and learned to navigate an Indian
department store. And by the end of their stay, they had gained new friends and
new perspectives, as their Indian counselors and campers shared their stories.
“Many of us were far out of our comfort zones, but the people we met, and
the experiences we had were incredible," Robinson says. "We all agreed that the challenges we
faced brought us closer together.”