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Meet Aishwarya Suresh of SelfEd Initiative

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aishwarya Suresh.

Aishwarya, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
In 2008, during a visit to my ancestral village in India, my mother told me my cousin couldn’t fulfill her dream of studying in the US because she didn’t know how to apply. “Can’t she Google it?” I asked in my naivete.

“Not everyone knows what a computer is.” My mom’s words conjured images of my Leap Frog toy computer and typing classes in elementary school; technology had always been an integral part of my education. “Everyone should have access to a computer,” I thought. The idea of a digital library stuck in the back of my brain since then.

In 2015, Naina Mishra, Megha Sreekanth, and I started off as interns for Mantra4change – a Bangalore-based non-profit founded by Santosh More and Khushboo Awasthi which focuses on whole school transformation and empowerment.

As interns, our responsibilities included creating and implementing an adapted creative curriculum in one of the low-income schools and conducting teacher training and demo lessons for the Lower Kindergarten classes. This experience definitely transformed our perspectives. I am beyond thankful to have Santosh, Khushboo, and the Mantra4change team as role models.

They taught us about the inner workings of a social enterprise and the importance of working in a passion-driven organization. Through this experience, we came face-to-face with global issues like blindness, abject poverty, child marriage, child labor, and illiteracy. In fact, forty of fifty-third-grade students at the school could not read or write beyond the letter C in the alphabet.

I distinctly remember one specific encounter with a student: Naina, Megha, and I were trying to help her write 3-word sentences– our goal for the week– when we realized she was unable to see the board 2 feet away. When we asked her if she had ever had her eyesight checked, her response was simple and straightforward: “I don’t have money to eat, I can’t afford to get my eyes checked.”

This led us to an important conclusion: we must equip these students with resources to learn independently and overcome their limitations. Thus was born our idea for the SelfEd initiative. We started off with the digital library. I distinctly remember sitting in Starbucks and creating a budget table and GoFundMe for the library.

Everyone thought we were insane, but as Steve Jobs said: “the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” That night we received our first donation of $30 dollars, and at that point, we were all in. We shamelessly went to individuals and asked them to donate.

We ended up raising over $4000 dollars and were able to set up a digital library in one of the schools with tablets, educational software, WiFi, and a digital education curriculum. This library is still being used today as part of a “tablet period in the school.”

SelfEd is growing, and our support is larger than ever, but our goal remains the same: bring equal opportunities to every student around the world by equipping them with resources to overcome their limitations.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Like everything else, there have been highs and lows. One of the biggest challenges we faced was resistance from the schools.

With any school transformation effort, it is important to gain support from the school leadership and teachers, but as teenagers from the US, it was initially difficult to gain their trust because we were visibly outsiders and very young.

However, after we got to know them, the school leadership and teachers started trusting us, hearing out our ideas, and pitching in their own. This gave us an important resource: the perspectives of the people in the community. This experience led to meaningful and lasting friendships with the school constituents. Mantra4change’s continuous support along with support from the school helped us get through these initial challenges.

SelfEd Initiative – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
SelfEd is a holistic approach to student empowerment based on three goals: professional development, bridging the digital gap, and fostering a positive learning environment.

Along with our library, we conduct several other programs including STEM Workshops in partnership with Future Engineer Camps and several Corporate Social Responsibility teams of multinationals, Peer Mentorship programs, and Career Awareness Workshops with speakers from various professional fields.

In response to the issue of blindness and eyesight, we conducted a Nanna Kannu Eye Camp with Sankara Eye Foundation. Our latest focus has been a Leadership and Entrepreneurship program where we equip high school students with problem-solving skills as a means of grassroots activism against larger global issues. In our pilot program, run by Vaishnavi Suresh, Naina Mishra, and I, we observed 100% of our students that were initially unable to present in front on ten people presented in front of over 300 people at the end of the program.

We are currently looking to bring our initiative to schools all around the world through course content on ShikshaLokam and an online platform on the SelfEd Initiative website created by Neelagreev Griddalur with course content and train-the-trainer materials so anyone anywhere can be a Leadership Program Facilitator.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Seeing impact throughout the journey motivates us to keep working toward our goal. I remember a few years ago, a student’s mother came up to me and asked: “Are you Aishwarya?” I answered yes hesitantly, unknowing of what may come.

“My son was practicing his alphabet in flour last night as I was making Parathas. What else can I give him to practice” Watching this community transform from one that previously followed rote-based system with low parent engagement into one that valued hands-on learning methods and holistic learning motivated us to continue to provide resources to empower the students?

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