The Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati is located on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra, sprawled over 700 acres of hills, forests and wetlands. In one corner of this beautiful campus, tutors from the technical institute teach students from local communities nearby the basics of English, science and arithmetic as part of an educational outreach programme called Disha.

In some classrooms, students as well as tutors are first-generation learners. Rashmi Gowala and Chitra Haldar, for instance, work as student volunteers now – but not too long ago, they sat on the other side of the same classroom, studying for their class 10 and 12 examinations. Two years on, they are back at Disha as teachers, working alongside the faculty and students of IIT.

Cultural bridge

The IIT students who lead the outreach programme said they made an effort to include members of the community as teachers in the programme. “[Gowala and Haldar] know the local language and are familiar with the customs,” said Sumit Das, a final year MTech student who organises these weekly sessions. “When we go into the villages to tell them about our classes, having people like Rashmi and Chitra helps us understand the situation. They know which children are struggling, which ones have dropped out of school, and how to speak to the parents. Their presence is invaluable, especially with younger children.”

“I have benefited from the classes, so when it was my turn to teach, I was very happy,” said Gowala, who is now studying political science at the Eastern Valley College near Guwahati. “The volunteers here have taught me well, I feel confident about teaching.”

Jogomaya Sarkar, who is also studying political science, has a younger brother who is attending the classes at IIT’s outreach programme. Sarkar signed up as one of the tutors last year, and has been teaching Assamese and English to children in class four.

Mutual learning

Each tutor benefits in some way from the exercise. Haldar, who is in her final year of school, said teaching math and English to primary school children helped her refresh her basics, and she was able to revise chemistry, thanks to the IIT students who were conduct their research on the subject. A few IIT students also gifted Sarkar a bicycle so that she could come to the classes on time. Gowala said she was looking forward to the spoken English classes that are scheduled to begin in a few months, so she could practise herself – in a few years, she plans to appear for the civil services examinations, and strong English-speaking skills will be a bonus.

“I see that different children take different approaches towards learning, and each one needs to be taught individually,” said Das, adding that he was also gaining a first-hand understanding of the ways in which government policies impact education. Zakia Khan, a volunteer at Disha, said teaching through an outreach programme was one of the easiest ways to get acquainted with various communities in the area. She described her surprise and joy when she is recognised as a teacher while shopping for groceries at the local market.

Mayur Agarwal, who graduated with a BTech degree in 2009 and spent the next seven years helping villages set up their own after-school centres, said it was essential for each village to become empowered, to help itself. Agarwal employs graduates to teach younger students in the neighbourhood, and both he and his wife fund the tutors’ salaries from their personal incomes.

Agarwal’s ex-student, Sandhya Sarkar, who is now a sought-after Assamese tutor for the children of IIT professors, said: “I started teaching in my village to make some money. When one of the workers on campus told me that a professor was looking for an Assamese tutor, I decided to take it up.” Since then, Sarkar has taught the basics of Assamese and Hindi ten students. Her income has enabled her mother to give up working as domestic labour.