K N Chandrashekaran
I’d like to share something with this audience. Do I have your permission?” The little girl from class 7 who asked this question was hardly half my height. I asked her to go ahead. “I wanted to sing in the competition in my school. My classmates and other students laughed at me. But I sang better than everybody.”
The girl was glowing with pride, as she shared this with the students who had assembled from 10 different schools. The occasion was the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) organized for the students of classes 7, 8 and 9 from corporation-run schools. The 70-odd students who attended the function came from10 different corporation run schools in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. It was wonderful to see the confidence in the girl’s eyes. There was no sign of nervousness. She was not alone. All the students in the programme were confident, eloquent, and not at all shy. I expected to find tongue-tied children and was therefore pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
It all started last year, when I had to organize the RYLA for school students in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. About 100 students from different schools participated. The regular district RYLA is conducted in English. The resource persons speak in English, and, the participants are generally from private, English medium schools. They have a reasonably good knowledge of English and speak fluently in the language.
The students from the government-run schools, however, lack adequate knowledge of the language and their self-confidence in such environments is low. They find mingling with their peers from private schools a challenge. But these students too need the benefits that RYLA offers. My experience of organizing one district RYLA, attended by about 100 students of Hyderabad-Secunderabad and trying to teach spoken English to the Class 10 students of a government school for a year led me to approach the problem by carrying the solution to the students. I decided to organize an RYLA for them in the language of their choice-Telugu. I identified about 100 students studying in Class 10 from a government school, both boys and girls. While these students begin studying English from class 3, their understanding and competence levels is poor even in class 10. They come from poor families with little or no education. The environment generally does not encourage education. When asked, the children said that the main reason they don’t even attempt to speak in English is the fear of ridicule from friends and family. All these factors combined put these otherwise street-smart children in a downward spiral in terms of academic performance and employment prospects. To digress a little, one of the major reasons for trying to teach them spoken English was to make them more employable and maybe increase their entry level salaries.
As a first step, I shared with them what RYLA is; the kind of topics usually covered and the potential benefits. I also got the school headmistress and a few teachers interested in this. This helped everyone get involved.
As a next step, I sat with the students to ask them about the topics that would be of interest to them. They were very excited and after the initial hesitation, the topics flew hard and fast. Speaking in English, relationships between boys and girls, career options, were some of the top topics.
I’ve now already been involved in three similar RYLAs this year in addition to the main one in English. The response has been uniformly positive. I’ve also just finalized fixing two more RYLAs for this Rotary year (July to June) one in Tamil and one in Kannada. Discussions are on to find suitable dates for one in Urdu, in the Old City part of Hyderabad. As India is a country with several languages and dialects, it would definitely be useful to reach children across languages and expose them to wider opportunities.
How do we reach out to the children? Essentially, I’ve been inviting and involving Rotarians who understand the problem, are empathetic and good at establishing a quick and easy relationship with children. The programme currently is only of a day’s duration and hence requires immediate connection with the children. The topics are of interest to the children and hence improve the opportunity for them to be participative. They are removed from the day-to-day classroom environment and that is also helpful.
These children only need to be encouraged and exposed to new ideas and opportunities. The barrier of English language, when overcome, will certainly help us reach out to these bright children who’re currently marginalized for no fault of theirs. Such a large talent pool when brought into the mainstream, I hope will make a great difference in the children’s lives.
We need to take this process forward and encourage these children through sustained exposure to such programmes to merge with the other advantaged groups over time.
Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) is an intensive training program that brings together youth and young adults, ages 14-30, to further develop character and leadership skills and learn about Rotary. RYLAs often take the form of a seminar, camp, or workshop. It is generally a 3-10 day affair and is organized by Rotarians at the club, district, or multi-district level.
Participants are nominated by local Rotary clubs, which often cover all expenses. For these young adults, this recognition offers the opportunity to build self-confidence, gain exposure to a variety of issues and people, meet active community leaders, and learn valuable information and career skills.
Each RYLA shares the following program objectives:
- To demonstrate Rotary’s respect and concern for youth
- To encourage and assist young people in responsible and effective voluntary youth leadership by providing them with a valuable training experience
- To foster continued and stronger leadership of the youth by the youth
- To publicly recognize the many young people who are rendering service to their communities as youth leaders.
The author is a Structural Engineer, interested in literacy and a Rotarian who has been actively involved in RYLA. He can be reached at