An Unending Desire to Learn

Emily Bitgood (third from left) with several of the women she met in India.

Editor's Note: Grameen Foundation's Bankers without Borders program has partnered with the University of Maryland at College Park on a study-abroad social enterprise program for graduate students in the School of Public Policy. Student teams, under the guidance of a faculty member, collect and analyze data to help social enterprises better understand the impact of their work and to improve their services to clients. Emily Bitgood's team spent two weeks in in northern India this past January.  

By Emily Bitgood

Our last day of data collection in the rural villages outside of Roorkee was bittersweet. Over a 10-day period, my team, along with our wonderful clients from Youthreach and Disha Social Organization, visited 15 adult literacy centers and talked to dozens of women and their families.

We entered their homes, shared delicious meals, connected over chai and observed the unending desire of the female villagers to become educated. Six days each week, local women gathered on rectangular carpets among their neighbors and friends to practice counting using matchsticks, identifying letters in the Hindi alphabet and repeating letter sounds as a group. Most importantly, they practiced writing the letters that combine to make up their names.

The women felt so proud to have learned how to write their names and their children’s names at the centers. Every day in the villages the women shared how powerful it made them feel when they were able to sign the deposit slip at the bank for the first time using their name instead of their thumb impression.

The adult literacy centers have thus provided a sense of identity and self-worth for the women. At first, it was hard for me to comprehend just how big of an accomplishment the name recognition was. I constantly thought to myself, how can someone go through 30, 40 or even 50 years of life not knowing how to spell their own name?

But then I reminded myself of my privilege and status as an American, and the cultural norm of educating all youth in the U.S. I reminded myself of the constant encouragement I received from my family throughout my time in school to achieve at the highest levels. I reminded myself that I faced minimal barriers compared to the women in these villages. It was only then that I understood just how impactful basic education can be. The women at the adult literacy centers demonstrated such a willingness and dedication to learn despite countless barriers. Their determination was not only humbling, but truly inspiring.

I will hold on to special memories of Roorkee to help me get through the work ahead. I will remember the bright blue skies and the serenity of the villages. I will remember the beautiful fields of mustard plants and sugarcane that we passed on our drives each day. I will remember the warmth of the chai shared amongst friends and colleagues. Most importantly, I will remember the smiles on the faces of the women who opened their homes to me and who shared their stories of courage and determination.

Emily Bitgood is a graduate assistant at the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland at College Park. You can read other blogs by the University of Maryland team here.