Q&A with a Social Entrepreneur

Parvathy Narayanan began her work with CAPART at Delhi to work with NGOs all over India. Her travels brought her to Nilakottai in Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu, where she started Aspire Foundation just at the age of 25. With her efforts and that of her unrelenting team, Aspire Foundation has grown from an enrollment of 16 students in 2005 to 600 today, of which more than 50% are girls.  She is also the Director of Eureka Schools, with AID India. Her family is her biggest support in this venture. To answer all queries regarding social work, community development and education, Parvathy is available as a mentor with Careers Infinite.

 Awarding certificates to volunteers who conducted reading & math summer camp for primary school children in their village

Awarding certificates to volunteers who conducted reading & math summer camp for primary school children in their village

Tell us about Aspire Foundation and the work you do.

I run Aspire foundation, a trust that works for rural education. I started this trust 12 years ago, in 2005. We work with children in middle school, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are on the verge of dropping out. We help these children develop skills that will help them cope with school and college education and life, in general. 

Our target area is currently Nilakottai, Dindigul district. Here, children do not have access to resources outside the school and their exposure is limited to textbooks. Mostly, the children do not see the relevance of what they are studying and why it is useful for them. This is one of several reasons for children to drop out early from school. At Aspire Foundation, we sustain children’s interests in basic school education and encourage them to aspire for a future of their choice.

What are some other roles you have taken up?

I also work with Aid India, an NGO based out of Chennai. I have been working with them for over 10 years now. The focus of this NGO is improving the quality of rural primary education across Tamil Nadu. I work with a team of 5-6 people to manage two schools in rural Tamil Nadu. We develop curriculum, train teachers and conduct assessments that teachers will find easy to replicate in the rural areas. The idea we want to model here is that all children, irrespective of  financial or social disadvantages, have the potential to achieve big.

What interested you to get into social work and community development specifically in the education sector?

Since childhood, I have seen that opportunities for education are not the same for all. I felt that it was unfair that by being born in a certain kind of family, one has access to resources, while other people, for no fault of their own, get the raw end of the deal. However, until I finished my Bachelors, I did not know how I was going to address it.

Soon after finishing my Masters at Madras School of Social Work, I was recruited by CAPART (Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology), an organization under the Ministry of Rural Development, in Delhi.  It was then that I got the opportunity to survey and research the needs of the Nilakottai people. I saw children dropping out of school because their parents were unemployed or migrated to other towns in search of employment.  The first-hand experience of seeing someone unsure of their family’s future was shocking. I felt that something had to be done and that’s why Aspire came into place

What were some of the issues addressed by Aspire Foundation?

 At a students’ summer exhibition – students were displaying skills they hadlearned in Aspire summer camps – drawing, painting, household ornamentaldecorations and Hindi vocabulary

At a students’ summer exhibition – students were displaying skills they hadlearned in Aspire summer camps – drawing, painting, household ornamentaldecorations and Hindi vocabulary

In 2005, along with a couple of my colleagues working at Nilakottai, I started Aspire Foundation with 16 students. Initially, we assumed that money was the issue, that parents could not pay the school fees. However, we soon realized that motivation was the key problem. People did not see any value in the school system. So we started addressing questions like “How to make children stay in school?” and “How to customize a curriculum to sustain students' interest?"

We worked on connecting real life experiences with the lessons children studied in their textbooks. We experimented with personality development workshops (communication, branding or critical reasoning), evening classes and field trips. Gradually, the programs became popular and children started attending them regularly. 

What are some of the challenges you faced and overcame in this journey?

Initially, it was difficult to get parents to see the value of Aspire Foundation’s program. For example, when we took the children out on a field trip, they related it to a vacation with no educational value. Many times, girls were not allowed to go and we had to approach individual parents to convince them that this was a worthwhile experience. It has taken us several years to earn their trust and help them understand that we are genuinely interested in their children’s well-being. 

 With Loganathan, Aspire alumnus, currently doing Ph.D. at Gandhigram Rural University

With Loganathan, Aspire alumnus, currently doing Ph.D. at Gandhigram Rural University

What is the big picture?

This program is just as relevant in other remote rural areas as it is in Nilakottai. We are working on simplifying our program so that it can be replicated in other areas by interested groups. The success of this program would enable us to replicate this model in other rural regions. Employment is still a big issue at Nilakottai. In the future, we plan to get into vocational education and training. This would give people technical experience and more opportunities for immediate employment.

What is your advice to a student interested in social work?

Understand the implications and the reality of the work. There is a lot of job satisfaction in this field; however, the students need to be aware of the challenges involved, before committing to this career path.

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