A shorter version of this feature was first published in Singapore American News.
There comes a time in every school year when high school students set down their pencils and turn off their computers to venture into various countries across the world, acquiring life-changing experiences and forming new friendships.
The Singapore American School Interim Semester was a result of students being increasingly isolated from “real life” in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Forty-five years ago, the first Interim Semester included 35 course options with trips to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since 1973, the program has come a long way, spanning 58 courses in 19 countries dedicated to service learning, global studies, and eco-adventures.
As a freshman, I wanted my first interim experience to be incredible, but falling towards the tail end of the selection queue, I was sure my hopes were set too high. To my surprise, I bagged a spot on one of my top trip choices—Me to We India. This trip included a group of 19 students, Mr. Curnett, and Mrs. Green traveling to Udaipur, a city in Rajasthan, India, to help construct a school in a rural village. We stayed at a beautiful campsite with local guides and trip facilitators from the Me to We program in Canada, enjoying flavorful food for every meal and a serene lake view.
Over the course of the trip, our group had a total of three building sessions, resulting in the flooring of an entire classroom and the construction of a school wall. Carrying heavy buckets of cement and mixing gravel with Indian shovels were new experiences for us, and we learned still more by observing and immersing ourselves in the culture of the local community. Women in this region spend a significant part of their day trekking to collect water and maintaining households in plightful conditions. To understand their lifestyle better, we engaged in a ‘Day in the Life’ activity which consisted of carrying water from a well to huts, making roti, feeding goats, and followed with a Q&A session with our host, a 55-year-old housewife named Ramabai.
With arms sore and muscles burning while goats tickled our palms as we fed them, we took in the impoverished conditions we had only read about. It was eye-opening to hear that the first time Ramabai met her husband was on her wedding day, that she had never been to school, and did not aspire to much. Often, the girls we were building the school for were taken out because of lack of toilets and parents didn’t see reason in educating girls whose lives would result in cooking, cleaning, and raising children starting late teens. For many of us, witnessing the conditions of tribal Rajasthan was unsettling because it represented the opposite of everything in our world.
After our day in Ramabai’s company, we returned to the build site and had an opportunity to interact with the school children. The village consisted of 450 households with an average of four children each, yet only 300 children were enrolled in the school and only one percent of the girls continued on to college. Interacting with the schoolchildren was one of the most exciting parts of our trip. Twelve-year-old Kailash read his Hindi textbook to me, then asked me to read stories from his English textbook, and teach him how to do long division.
The juxtaposition between my city of heritage and the village I visited allowed me to understand more about the world than I did before. We’re always reminded of how lucky we are, but it was the interactions with Ramabai and the school children—especially the girls—that revealed to me how going to school and the ability to make my own life choices are luxuries, not rights. I also learned that community work is not a one-sided phenomenon; we take back invaluable life lessons from the time we spend providing means to stabilize and strengthen another community.
We soon returned to camp where we celebrated holi (a little early), dressed up in saris, and collapsed onto the ground in heaps of laughter after dancing to Bollywood music. We also saw the City Palace and Kumbhalgarh Fort where we learned about the royal and military history of Rajastha n, enhancing the connection we had already begun to feel with the place.
After such a vast medley of experiences, we were a little heartbroken to be flying away from the delicious delicacies and smiling school children. However, we were excited to be coming back to WiFi and our families.Eight days in Udaipur had planted seeds of change in each of our hearts, leaving us determined to bring what we had experienced and felt back to Singapore. I won’t need any pictures to remember my first Interim Semester experience, and I can’t wait for more similar opportunities in the years to come.
Photos by Ameya Ghiya, ninth grade.
- Social, Emotional and Service Learning