Four students working in two teams, Ms. A. Aarthi and Ms. Alice Jane Tsibulsky, and Ms. Lama El Hanan and Maggie Morris, students from the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto University, Canada interned with the Centre for Research and Social Transformation (CREST) in Kerala, India during May-August 2016. This undergraduate fieldwork research project was funded by the Dean’s International Initiatives Fund (DIIF). The role of the interns were to assist CREST staff with coaching and mentoring students of the Model residential School Access program. They organised creative leadership activities and facilitated discussions on gender and caste. The academic objective of the research internship was to learn more about social exclusion in India, with a particular focus on the caste system, through direct exchanges and discussions with students and staff in both formal classroom settings and through informal interactions. With the guidance of the program coordinator, Professor Tania Li, the interns are currently working on a paper that analyses the various factors that influence the capacity to aspire amongst Dalit youth in Kerala.
You can link to A. Aarthi and Alice Tsibulky’s blog about their CREST experience here.
A Typical Day at CREST: The Intern’s Perspective
By: Maggie Morris and Lama El-Hanan
CREST or the Centre for Research in Education and Social Transformation is based in the KIRTADS government building complex located in the city of Kozhikode, Kerala, India. The building complex consists of a museum showcasing the history of scheduled castes and tribes as well as the main CREST campus, where the majority of the program’s activities are conducted. Needless to say, we and the students spent the majority of our time in the latter location. The CREST campus—a square building constructed around an open courtyard—has two floors. The upper floor is occupied by research staff, whose comings and goings we knew very little about. The lower floor consists of classrooms, administrative offices, and a small but well-stocked library.
Our days at CREST followed a particular rhythm. Once we entered the building, we would greet the security staff as well as the students who had already arrived. We would then make our way to the makeshift offices we shared with one of the organization’s program coordinators to cool off and grab our fieldwork journals. Following that, we would make our way to the computer lab where we would wait for students to arrive and begin their ‘morning session’. The ‘morning session’ was a half-hour period during which a designated group of Crestians led a series of activities and games to prepare their colleagues for their day at CREST. It began with students singing along to an uplifting song like ABBA’s ‘I have a Dream’ or Lionel Richie’s ‘Good Morning’. This was of course consistent with CREST’s overall theme of determination and positive-thinking as tools for success. Following the song, students would take turns presenting one-minute speeches on topics ranging from the importance of friendship to water conservation. They would also offer words of positivity or encouragement, which they called “small big things”. Once these presentations were out of the way, student leaders would encourage colleagues to perform a song or dance for the class. It was clear that students loved to sing, and also to listen to their colleagues sing. They frequently called on us to serenade them with English and even Bollywood songs. We would often resort to Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘Ain’t no Mountain High Enough’, acutely aware of our relative lack of vocal ability.
Students at a self-facilitated outdoor morning session
Once the ‘morning session’ was over, students would return to the computer lab and wait for classes to begin. They would shuffle their notebooks around and talk to each other while doing so, but all this would come to an abrupt stop when the lecturer walked into the room, at which point students would stand and greet him/her. This was our cue to head to the back of the classroom and get our fieldwork journals out. Other times we would go back to our offices and work on assignments, or come up with workshops and activities for the students. One of the first activities we came up with was the ‘compliment board’. Consisting of thirty-eight envelopes glued to a poster board, it was a way for students to communicate their appreciation for a positive or thoughtful thing a colleague did. As soon as we put it up the ‘compliment board’ was a hit. It became an instant ‘hangout spot’, alerting us to the importance of creating a designated space where students could de-stress within the institution. From here came the idea of creating a ‘Crestian Corner’—i.e. reclaiming an underutilized part of the building for the students, and transforming it into a space that was centered on their needs and concerns, not only as job applicants, but also as people. As time went on, we added more elements to the ‘Crestian Corner’. Some of the activities we came up with are:
- ‘Student of the month’: because the compliment board was a big hit, we decided to enhance the student corner with some more student-centered activities. We set up a makeshift electoral office at the ‘Crestian Corner’, instructing students to vote for the Crestian they believe is most deserving of the title of ‘student of the month’. We also bought prizes that would allow the program to continue until the students graduated from CREST.
Unnikrishnan – September student of the month
- ‘Student calendar’: to cement the idea of the ‘Crestian Corner’ as a student-centered space, we created a ‘student calendar’ marked with reminders of students’ birthdays and other dates that were important to them as a supplement for the government calendar that CREST provided.
- ‘Words of wisdom’: this was a jar filled with some of our favorite quotes about happiness, friendship, success and life in general. Students who were having a bad day would use this as a resource for inspiration.
At around a quarter to one, we would all break for lunch. The boy and girls ate separately: the boys had their food at their hostel, and the girls had it at CREST owing to the fact that their hostel was so far away. We spent an equal amount of time eating with both groups. On the days when we ate with the girls, we would grab eat a packed lunch from the hostel or by a lunch from a small bakery near to the KIRTADS campus. We usually bought a few bondas (a fried dish which one program coordinator described as a Keralite samosa) and a drink, drawing looks of amusement from the girls who insisted that this was a snack rather than a meal. On the days we ate lunch with the boys, we were treated to a real Kerala feast complete with at least two curries and sides of rice and poppadum. There were only eight boys in our CREST batch, meaning that we could all eat together at their dinner table. This allowed us to get to know them better, which was great given that issues of gender and access meant we had less opportunities to be with them
A more elaborate Kerala meal (Called Thali)
After lunch, there were usually a few student presentations. These presentations were usually on ‘hot topics’ in the Indian social and political arena. Some of these include the rise of the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal—a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization on the frontlines of the highly controversial cow protection movement—and the state of queer and transgender rights in India. Although we were often asked by administrative staff to assess and constructively criticize student presentations, we can honestly say that we learnt more from the students than they could ever learn from us. These presentations gave us a sense of the pulse of Indian civil society. Moreover, they allowed us to see how students imagined themselves in that civil society given their disadvantaged position.
Student group “Suvhani” leading a presentation
After presentations, we would usually go back to the office to work on our assignments. We would sit there until we started to hear the students’ voices echoing in the campus courtyard, a sign that CREST was out for the day. At this point, we would rush to the computer lab and join students who would go there to work on assignments and presentations. Although we were always eager to conduct workshops with students, we recognized that after-hours were their only time to work on group assignments. For this reason, we would usually use this time to: (a) coach students in research and presentation skills, and (b) help them improve their spoken and written English. During students’ lighter work weeks, we would allocate after hours to capacity-building workshop activities. One which was particularly popular with students was the ‘synonym challenge’—a competitive game where they had to come up with five synonyms for a given word, and then act them out to allow the other team to guess that word.
At the end of the day, we would take a ride back to the hostel with a group of students. This was an experience in and of itself—the view, the music, the colorful characters of the bus driver and ticket collector, and the amazing conversations we had with the students during those rides are something we cannot forget! Once we reached the hostel, we would usually do our work and have some dinner. We would then spend the remainder of our time hanging out with students in their dorms—chatting, listening to music, watching a movie, or learning some new dance moves. This would last until about eleven o’clock at which point we were all on the brink of collapse form exhaustion. We would prepare for bed, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up to another day—or rather adventure—at CREST!
The hostel itself was a 3 story house in what we were told was a rather ‘affluent neighborhood.’ The small laneway it was located on was lined with large, fancy looking homes. It was just a short walk down this quiet side-street to the main road, where one could easily snag an auto, grab a croissant at a western bakery, find some great samosas at an Indian hot-café, or shop for interesting goods at our favorite grocery store. The main road is situated in a neat little enclave of town, with bioparks, spice shops and temples lining the street. It is midway between CREST and the ‘downtown core’ – where we frequently visited for falooda (Indian ice cream), sari shopping or to accompany the girls to the seamstress for tailoring their uniforms.
On the first floor of the hostel was the kitchen – a central hub of hostel life. One of the ‘aunties’ of the hostel appeared to be working in the kitchen to prepare our meals nearly every hour of the day. The food here was typical ‘Kerala food’ and happened to be the spiciest food we would eat on our trip. A daily meal would include a breakfast of Dosa (Indian ‘pancake’), chutney and hot coffee; lunch was rice and a variety of veg curries – which we all packed into containers to bring to CREST; while dinner was typically a meat curry, veggies, rice, bread and chai tea. In the seating area, a big dining table with seats for about 10 was the space where the girls would not just eat, but socialize (with each other and the ‘aunties’), do their homework or watch movies. It was a central area where girls could re-group at the end of the day, or organize themselves before running for the bus off to CREST.
As interns, our room was on the first floor with one other academic personnel. A security ‘uncle’ stood at our door diligently all night, while we remained inside (often while the power was out, a near nightly occurrence). Directly above us was where the girls slept, in several rooms occupied by 6 girls each, and 2 common rooms. The common rooms were a key area where girls would prepare for CREST presentations at the large tables, or chat with students from different rooms, or have impromptu dance parties. Rules at the hostel were quite strict. After several late nights we spent with the girls in the city, it became a rule that the outside gate would be locked at 7pm sharp – no exceptions, everyone had to be home by then (alas, no more late nights at the cinema or the beach). The girls (and us) were expected to do all our own cleaning, wash our own dishes and one student was delegated for daily grocery shopping – quite a difference from dorms and hostels here at U of T. Other than that however, we and the girls had plenty of freedom at the hostel. On the third floor was the washing area, where girls washed their clothing and hung them under the open-air sheltered roof.
Many of our most interesting and emotional conversations with students occurred in the girls’ bunks upstairs – where we ultimately moved in to sleep full time, as we came to realize it was akin to a daily sleepover party with friends, and much more fun than our quiet living quarters downstairs. The conversations which emerged from our time spent at the hostel were invaluable. Family life (often, how much they missed their families), struggles, stories of college (most girls agreed, the best time of their lives), lived realities of poverty, marriage (many girls were in serious relationships, so fears and anxieties were a frequent topic) and the discrimination they’ve experienced, were but some of the topics. The hostel was the space where the girls seemed to leave their ‘professional selves’ at CREST, and really opened up emotionally, demonstrating how much they trusted us and each other.
The hostel was obviously an ethnographically rich site, as it was where informal ‘interviews’ were conceived through daily/nightly conversation and banter, but also the site of formal interviews. One of the most memorable moments at the hostel was conducting an interview with 4 students which was so passionate, emotional and clearly a valuable self-discovery session for the girls (and us), that we nearly forgot to eat dinner (after 3 hours of interviewing!). We sprinted downstairs to grab dinner before it was taken away with but minutes to spare. It was through long nights like these spent sharing fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams for the future, that we came to realize that this was they key space where CRESTians identified as a family – not just student colleagues. Interviews that were conducted at CREST simply lacked the whole-heartedness and raw honesty that seemed to emerge in the casual settings of the hostel.
Overall, the hostel was an invaluable site for us to gain the students trust, making research deeper and more comprehensive. It was a space where the girls were able to open up to us, but also where we provided them personal information about ourselves: our college experiences, our relationships with friends and families, our own fears about the future and our likes, dislikes and passions. It was absolutely a site where friendship emerged, research was conducted and good food was eaten.