A collection of anecdotes by individuals, just like us, doing what they love
What was the turning point that led you to leave your village?
While I was growing up, I wanted to go out of the village - that was really clear in my mind. I knew if I got out, my life and future would be different. I could do so much in my life. After seeing my friends getting married and not doing much, I was sure I didn’t want a future like that - that was also clear. I was looking for opportunities which would help me do something different so I started writing government exams for post offices, banks etc. Around that time, my librarian told me about the Young India Fellowship scouting for applicants in Tamil Nadu. I was really excited because this was my one chance to get out of the village. It was a fully funded program at that time. But I didn’t have an email ID, I didn’t know how to browse the internet and things like that so my librarian helped me. The Fellowship took me to Delhi.
What was it like being in a new environment, did you face any challenges? How did you overcome them?
I still remember the day I came to Delhi with my father and my brother-in-law. My father was shocked, as was I, looking at how different things were. When we went to the canteen, my father couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw boys and girls hugging. Being in a village, we never see things like this. My father said, “Oh my god. You should not be talking to these guys.” “No, I will not talk to these guys”, I responded. I was worried that if I did or said something, he would take me back to the village. So I decided not to talk and be the ‘good girl’.
I couldn’t speak English properly, I was dressing differently; I felt very alone in the beginning. I felt very odd but I think I was blessed with good people. My friends at the Fellowship helped in the initial stage. I remember my friend sitting with me and doing pronunciation classes at night. I used to watch movies with subtitles to learn English so that I could communicate and participate in the class. It was a tough journey but I felt that it was required for me to give whatever I could to the Fellowship.
Can you take us through your professional journey since then?
English was a struggle - I was neither fluent nor could I understand. I remember, in the first term of the Young India Fellowship, we had a Foundations of Leadership course and I couldn’t understand a single word the professor spoke. I used to sit and think about what I should do. I went to the Deputy Dean and told him that I’m going back as I couldn’t sit in the classes and that he made a wrong choice in selecting me for the program. He encouraged me and said “Whatever happens, you’re not going to lose anything. You just need to give yourself a chance, even if you fail and struggle, it’s completely fine.” That pushed me. Professors told me to speak up in class to build my confidence.
Being in Delhi, I couldn’t speak Hindi either but the city was friendly to me and I really enjoyed my time there. After a year, I could feel a complete transformation. I became very confident and, unlike before, I was sure my future is secured in some way. I could dream big. I felt empowered.
Post the Fellowship, I got the opportunity to work at Sughavazhvu (SV) Healthcare as a “Community Engagement Manager”. The role required me to go to schools, colleges and villages and give health awareness talks on anaemia and potential diabetes. This laid the foundation for my own venture, Bodhi Tree Skills. I became passionate about talking to the rural youth.
I realised I wanted to give back to my village. I could see all my friends struggling while I had a very good life. I felt morally responsible to do something so I came back to my village in Tirunelveli and started Bodhi Tree Skills. To build my leadership skills, I also joined the Acumen Fellowship.
How has the transition been from working in an established enterprise like Sughavazhu Healthcare to running your own? How did you come up with the idea of Bodhi Tree Skills?
As mentioned earlier, I was conducting healthcare awareness camps in rural villages and colleges. I could see college graduates struggling. I could see myself in them - very shy, very scared, wanting to do something with their lives but weren’t aware of opportunities. Village communities feel that everything will be fine once you become a graduate. But the reality is that even after becoming a graduate, you don’t know what to do with your life because you don’t have the skills. I had experienced this myself; while my peers at the Fellowship and SV Healthcare were extremely excited about their career, I had nothing to look forward to. They had parents helping them out with their career unlike most of us from rural villages.
I remember reading a quote when I was at SGV - “Will you be happy with yourself 50 years from now, doing what you’re doing now?” I remember saying “no” in my head. Even though I loved my work at SV and was very comfortable, I really wanted to do something that would challenge me. For this reason, I decided to go back to my village.
I had a conversation, with one of my colleagues at SV, about wanting to start an organization for rural graduates. He was really helpful. We sat down one evening to think about names and he came up with ‘Bodhi Tree Skills’. We finalised the name and the logo was created. It all happened very fast. We put things in place based on intuition rather than sitting and making the plan for the next 3 years. Once I got back to the village, I went to colleges for permissions before registering the company. I went to my own college and told them I wanted to teach the students. They were very welcoming so I started taking classes there and then I moved on to other colleges. After eight months, I got the confidence to register Bodhi Tree Skills as a trust.
Since skills training is a relatively new concept in Tirunelveli, how have you built awareness about the program and how has the community responded to Bodhi Tree Foundation?
Engineering colleges were aware about training. Therefore, Bodhi Tree Skills tries to train students in arts & science colleges because we really feel these students need the training more than the engineering students. Since the first college was my own, it wasn’t tough to convince them, but it was tough convincing the others. One of the principals of a womens’ Muslim college told us that they didn’t need us because the students were going to get married anyway. Moments like these disappoint me. I try my best to tell people that skills training is important. Through Bodhi training, we tell students about scholarship and fellowship opportunities, government jobs and private jobs and about how to write resumes and give interviews. We provide access to these opportunities.
However, surprisingly, rural villages respond far more positively than colleges. Village communities are very interested in improving the situation in their respective village; whereas colleges care more about admissions than their students’ careers.
Many of our readers would be interested to know the challenges you faced/are facing while setting up/running an enterprise in rural India.
I was a very shy kid. I was conditioned not to speak in front of elders, not to raise my voice and not to speak in the class. Compared to who I was when I started my professional journey, I am a different person thanks to Bodhi. I still face the challenge of colleges assuming I’ll be weak but then I show them that I’m running an organization. When I go to these colleges with a male friend or colleague, they talk to him and not me. As a woman, it’s been difficult to gain confidence, but transformational. I think the bigger struggle for me has been to convince my parents as my sister got married at a very early age and all my other relatives haven’t done much. Therefore, for my parents it was quite a shock when I told them I wanted to start something and that I’m going to live alone in Tamil Nadu (while they were in Karnataka). Convincing them was difficult but they understand me now because I’m really passionate about this.
What keeps you motivated to continue with your work and how do you manage your stress? Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
I think what keeps me motivated is the cost of not providing this training. I know there are so many Ashweetha’s and I know for a fact there are so many people who are excited to do something but they just need a support system. I get disappointed a lot of times; running a not-for-profit for 2 years, I want to raise funds and get people to believe in my idea. I’ve had moments when I’ve wanted to give up. But I know I can spend 2 months cribbing and then start again. I recently started practicing Vipassana because I was so stressed.
I’m going to be honest - you get stressed when you see your peers doing well and going abroad and you ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. You don’t see the impact you’re making the way you had anticipated it to be. When I started, I hoped to achieve great things in one year but nothing happened in the first year. I faced a lot of stress and I’m sure so do others. But my passion and dream are what keep me going. I can see so many ‘Ashweetha’s joining fellowships such as the Young India Fellowship, Teach For India, Gandhi Fellowship and breaking stereotypes associated with rural college graduates. Thinking about the dream reduces my stress.
Ten years down the line, I don’t know what I’ll be doing but I’m sure Bodhi Tree Skills will be helping so many graduates. I want to make the organization sustainable and want it to venture into the technology space. Since our graduates have access to mobile phones, maybe in ten years our approach towards reaching graduates and towards helping, supporting and mentoring them will be very different from what it is today.
You can also tune in to our podcast interview with her, the link for which is given below.
For those who'd like to help Ashweetha with her venture, contribute to the Bodhi Tree Skills' crowdfunding campaign: https://milaap.org/campaigns/bodhitreeskills
Ashweetha's story is one of perseverance and sheer enthusiasm for every opportunity that comes her way. Alterbeat wishes her all the best in her endeavours.
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