This post is part of a recurring series about alumni of the Study of U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders for Public Policy and Government Leadership Program (SUSI) that is run by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Meridian International Center. For other posts about progress SUSI alumni are making in their communities, click here.
Thanks to governmental reforms, education in Bangladesh has continued to improve over the past ten years. However, this uplifting progress comes with some disheartening figures: according to a World Bank report, in 2004 almost 1.5 million students were not enrolled in school. Due to problems such as families’ inability to pay for school supplies and the alarmingly high drop-out rate, many students were not able to take advantage of the new government programming that mostly supports the formal primary sector.
Chinmoy Bhowmik decided to take action. In 2013, he created the educational initiative “Project Road to School (R2S)”, a program aimed to raise educational awareness and literacy rates in the slum communities of the Tejgaon Industrial Area in Dhaka, Bangladesh. R2S works to increase education rates by both providing pre-primary education and helping to enroll students in the local government school.
The supplemental instructional portion of the project is facilitated by two Bangladeshi teachers, as well as the help of numerous volunteers. This team gives weekly lessons in math, Bengali, and English to 40 enthusiastic students who were chosen through an extensive needs survey. Chinmoy tried to structure the classroom as much as possible to mimic an actual school setting: students gather for a larger lecture, and then are broken up into groups in order to receive more individualized attention. The real reward came when school supplies were distributed; “giddy smiles” accompanied the passing out of stationary, books, and backpacks.
While the enthusiasm of the R2S team is always matched by students’ eagerness, the journey to success is never without some roadblocks. One challenge that the team faces is trying to convince parents of the merit of education. R2S has conducted several “motivational sessions” in order to show these students’ parents that “Education is an investment – the best you can make”. The session resulted in 72% of the 40 students enrolling in Quarter Guard School, a local government school, and the parents bearing all of the associated costs. Small victories such as these show the impact R2S is making on Bangladeshi youth.
Another difficulty arose when the R2S classroom was turned into a commercial hotel by local authorities. The announcement came soon before the motivational aspect of the project; however, the team was able to find another classroom that perfectly suited its needs. The ability of R2S to overcome these challenges demonstrates the passion of Chinmoy and his team, and the longevity of the project.
Besides educational initiatives, R2S has sponsored several other events to benefit the local community. On December 16, 2013, R2S partnered with the BYLC Graduate Network and the Children’s Oral Health Development Foundation (COHDF) to create a health camp that provided over 50 individuals with free medical checkups. On February 21st, to celebrate International Mother Language Day, R2S created an art and sports competition to benefit local youth and raise awareness about their educational initiatives. R2S volunteers facilitated a “lively sports competition”, distributed art materials to over 47 students, and gave lessons on the history of the Bengali language.
On March 26th, Chinmoy and the R2S team—inspired by the recent fall in attendance due to heat-related illnesses such as fever, dehydration, and diarrhea—created a Health Campaign Day to coincide with Bangladesh’s Independence Day festivities. The event, similarly co-sponsored by the Children’s Oral Health Development Foundation, featured presentations on the importance of healthy steps children could take to prevent disease, such as washing hands before eating, drinking clean water, and properly cleaning one’s teeth. The R2S team was surprised about how much the children already knew about these types of healthy behaviors, but alarmed at how poverty and lack of resources prevented the children from actually exercising these habits. Students were understandably overjoyed when presented with health packets containing toothbrushes, soap, vitamin tablets, and saline sachets. One student was so excited, she started brushing her teeth on the spot!
Thanks to funding from the Department of State’s Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs and Meridian International Center, Project Road to School has been able to help 40 students in bettering their education and health. In the future, Chinmoy hopes to not only expand the program to reach a greater number of students and impoverished communities, but to also ensure that the enrollment rate in Bangladeshi schools continues to grow. Given the success the program has already seen, this goal certainly seems within reach.