RAMCHANDRA GUNARI

India,

In India, secondary schooling is only available in large urban centers. Rural teens who pursue a college education must move to the cities, where many, away from home for the first time, fall victim to depression. Ramchandra Gunari helps connect these students with mentors and tutors who smooth the transition to city life.

This profile below was prepared when Ramchandra Gunari was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.

INTRODUCTION

In India, secondary schooling is only available in large urban centers. Rural teens who pursue a college education must move to the cities, where many, away from home for the first time, fall victim to depression. Ramchandra Gunari helps connect these students with mentors and tutors who smooth the transition to city life.




THE NEW IDEA

Students coming to urban schools from provincial towns are often frightened by their new surroundings and intimidated by their new curriculum. Cut off from their friends and family, they have no one to turn to in times of stress, but most Indian schools don’t offer counseling services to help students. Ramchandra is creating a support system for these lonely students, complete with trained emotional and academic mentors and counseling sessions. In 1999, Ramchandra started recruiting recent university graduates to found a professional corps of tutors and counselors called the Ankura program. Today, the Ankura program operates in twelve cities throughout Karnataka, and Ramchandra intends to use the national network of education and youth-focused Ashoka Fellows to continue spreading his idea.




THE PROBLEM

Schools in rural India only provide formal education through grade ten. Children as young as fourteen, who want to continue school beyond this point, must leave their homes to study in the big cities. At urban schools, these students struggle with challenging college preparatory work, take classroom instruction in English for the first time, and confront new subject areas often ignored in rural schools—all without the familiar support of friends and family. As a result, they feel isolated and lonely, frequently falling into depressions that can hinder their studies and destroy their confidence.

The Indian educational system is extremely demanding, and a student must exert constant diligence and hard work to pass his classes. Annually, roughly 50 percent of students in India pass the grade 10 exam, but only 40 percent of those who choose to continue through pre-university courses pass the grade 12 exam. Students who fail the grade 12 exam are ineligible to attend university. The odds of passing are even worse for rural students experiencing urban education for the first time. Most are under enormous pressure from their teachers and parents to succeed despite all these hurdles, but far too often the end result is that the student becomes despondent and loses interest in seeking an advanced degree.

Although there is growing recognition that many rural students feel helpless, isolated, and overwhelmed, schools hesitate to refer students to outside psychiatrists for help because of the social stigma. At the same time, schools do not provide any comparable internal support to help rural students adjust to their new educational environment. Currently, no institutionally-based programs exist to help students deal with academic pressures or feelings of isolation




THE STRATEGY

Instead of being thrown headfirst into the fray of academic life as new students had been in the past, Ramchandra’s students begin the school year with a ten day orientation that introduces them to supportive teachers and Ankura program counselors. Students learn that there is help available for them when they despair, that they can go to counselors and other adults to talk about their problems. Over the course of the orientation, students also socialize with their peers, learning that they aren’t alone in their fear and confusion at attending a new school, an important first step toward minimizing future feelings of isolation.

The orientation also includes lectures on some of the more confusing aspects of city schools, such as how to use the library, and preparation tips for the university entrance examinations. Ankura counselors give students an initial introduction to the new subjects through role-playing exercises and active group discussion. From helping students refine their study techniques in physics to showing them how to color-code chemistry reactions, the educators offer rural students a strong foundation for future academic growth and self-esteem development.

Recognizing that many students have difficulty mastering English quickly, Ankura publishes student handbooks in different local languages that include information on common student issues and studying techniques. Ramchandra is the author of a column in a widely read Student magazine, Chigaru, on effective study methods.

While many full-time teachers have good intentions, Ramchandra worried that they have too many other responsibilities vying for their attention to commit themselves to mentoring lost and confused students. However, he realized that recent university graduates are always looking for work and that, having just recently been through the university experience themselves, they are sensitive to the problems faced by new students.

Even so, teachers still play a critical role in the strategy from the orientation stage forward. At orientation, teachers begin observing students to better understand how to provide support. They work to integrate Ankura’s support methods and materials into the substance of the students’ courses. Throughout the year, they monitor students, evaluate their progress, and adapt their techniques to suit their needs. Teachers who were initially skeptical of the program have become some of Ankura’s greatest champions. In fact, Ankura is now building a substantial band of teachers trained as counselors. Trained teachers, in turn, have become Ankura’s representatives at their respective colleges.

Schools which employed the Ankura strategy saw a 5 percent increase in the percentage of passing students. Educational advancement figures are even more impressive, particularly in light of the stark figures on advancement given above. Over two-thirds of Ankura students went on to the next educational level.

Ankura has established itself in 12 cities in Karnataka, and continues to expand its network. The teacher training programs have spread Ankura’s work to the areas in Karnataka State with the lowest literacy rates, such as Sindhanuar Manavi. Trained counselors are opening new Ankura centers in other colleges and universities, while citizen-based initiatives and more traditional academic support centers are also opening Ankura support groups. Citizen-based initiatives, rotary clubs, and other social organizations have adopted schools in which they intend to implement this strategy.

In the future, Ramchandra plans to address students’ needs for additional psychological and emotional support, beyond that which Ankura educators and counselors alone can offer. He plans to involve parents in the program and encourage them to play a role in their children’s education, even though they may live a great distance from their student children. He is also working to increase teachers’ awareness of the occasional need for professional psychologists in especially difficult cases. To further help troubled students, he plans to involve leading psychologists, clinical psychiatrists, social workers, education specialists, teachers, and lecturers.




THE PERSON

Ramchandra has a professional degree in psychology and has developed numerous radio programs on the subject of counseling. Although counseling was once a taboo topic in India, Ramchandra’s radio programs, including both features and serials, have helped to decrease the stigma and make it a palatable topic for a general listening audience.

Like many Indian students, Ramchandra struggled in school. Years later, when another student approached him with his school-related problems, Ramchandra recalled his own experience. Wondering if anything could be done to improve the situation for India’s students, he devoted himself to educational issues and studied counseling methods in the United States through a Rotary exchange program. Eventually, he created Ankura, an innovative, affordable system for connecting relocated rural students with the help they need, as well as opening up a new job market for recent graduates.