June 7, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 18

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    Couple founded school in Banaras, India, which now offers students teaching opportunities through CAPS internships

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Pupils at Vidyashram, the South Point School, in Banaras, India, enjoy a holiday celebration there. The school was founded by Nita Kumar and Som Majumdar, both former members of the University community. Through the University’s internship programs in Career and Placement Services, Kumar and Majumdar now offer teaching opportunities for University students.
    Nita Kumar and Som Majumdar faced a problem not unknown to many academic couples whose work sometimes requires travel to areas remote from major urban centers.

    In the late 1980s, Kumar, who completed her Ph.D. in History, and Majumdar, a Lecturer in Economics, decided to relocate from Chicago to Banaras, India, to pursue research interests.

    When they arrived, they found themselves confronted with the challenge of finding a school that would provide a rich learning environment they wanted for their two young daughters.

    “Education is really one of the problem areas in Indian life,” explained Kumar. “The public school system is not just poor, it’s really quite desperate, so everyone who can afford it sends their children to private schools. The problem that we found in Banaras was that even the private schools were very bad.”

    Kumar and Majumdar decided to found their own school. “Since there was no school we could think of that would have been anything less than a nightmare for our children, we decided to stop talking and do something about it,” Kumar recalled. “There really was no other solution.”

    In 1990, after several years of planning and organizing, they opened Vidyashram, the South Point School. The school now offers accredited classes that begin at the pre-school level and continue through the eighth grade. Its small size, progressive curriculum and community setting make it virtually unique in the Indian educational system.

    This year, South Point School is one of more than 100 organizations worldwide that will offer fully funded summer internships exclusively to Chicago undergraduates through the College-Sponsored Internship Program. Through the special partnership with the University, Kumar and Majumdar have invited two Chicago students to teach at South Point School for 10 weeks this summer.

    Peng Guo and Emily Rook-Koepsel, both third-year students at Chicago, will travel to Banaras in July to work at the school for one term as full-time teachers. The two were selected for the internships through a competitive application process administered by the office of Career and Placement Services.

    Summer internships have become a part of the culture of student life in the College, but without the right guidance, it is not always easy for students to find the right match. Last summer, Rook-Koepsel, a History concentrator with an interest in South Asian studies, interned at a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., but found the work largely uninspiring. “This year, I really wanted to look for something that suited me a little better. A friend recommended that I go through CAPS, and I found that they have a whole bunch of really interesting internships.”

    Rook-Koepsel said she had hoped to travel to India this summer before ever hearing about the internship in Banaras. “I wanted to go to India this summer no matter what,” she explained. “This program is perfect for me. This way, I won’t just be there as a college student tourist, I’ll actually be doing something substantial.”

    Guo, a dual concentrator in Economics and Biology, who also studied philosophy intensely during his first year in the College, wanted to find an internship for the summer that would reflect his personal philosophy. “Philosophy can be a guide to discovering what you want to do,” he explained. He said his reflections led him to approach life by simply living through it. “I’ve realized it’s about getting into different situations and having experiences just to explore life.

    “I went to CAPS knowing only that I wanted to do something interesting this summer. That’s when I met Hilary Caldwell,” he continued. Caldwell, CAPS Associate Director for Internships, encouraged Guo to apply for an internship at South Point School.

    “The CAPS counselors are great,” he commented. “They make an effort to get you to understand that there’s always something more out there, that there are always opportunities of which to take advantage. Once you realize that, it’s all about trying out different things.”

    Caldwell said Guo’s sense of exploration is something CAPS encourages in all College students. “The internship program is set up to allow students to imagine the full range of career possibilities that their liberal arts experience has prepared them for,” she explained. “Because of our donors’ support for the College-Sponsored Internship Program, we can make internships like the one at South Point School possible for a broader range of students.

    “Through the program, there are close to 200 paid internships available exclusively to our undergraduates. Each position offers 10 weeks of substantive work with a mentor. For-profit firms pay students directly. The College offers a stipend of $4,000 for opportunities with non-profits,” she continued. “If we weren’t able to offer that kind of funding, it would be pretty hard for some of them to make real choices about internships at not-for-profits,” she said.

    “We’re really an innovator in this area,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College. “We take great pride in sponsoring a host of not-for-profit opportunities, whether they be in museums or community service agencies or at research institutions like National Geographic,” he explained. “And most of our peer institutions don’t have a dedicated program that’s organized with an application and review process.”

    Boyer said the College’s investment in the program is worthwhile because it helps students understand the value of their liberal arts education. “One of the things they discover is that employers value the analytical skills, the reasoning and writing abilities that Chicago students bring to the workplace.”

    Based on her previous experience with a College intern, Kumar concurred with Boyer’s assessment. Thomas Meaney, a second-year undergraduate at Chicago, worked at South Point School last summer. “He was a fully vested teacher, who had to come very early every morning and battle with all kinds of boys and girls who wanted to test him out,” she recalled. “He handled the challenges marvelously.” She expects Guo and Rook-Koepsel to prove equally resourceful.

    Kumar said she believes deep connections exist between the University and South Point School. It is a feeling her eldest daughter, Irfana Majumdar, seems to share. One of South Point School’s first graduates, Irfana is now a second-year in the College. “She applied to many different places where she also was accepted, and we didn’t particularly influence her to choose Chicago over the others,” Kumar explained. “Still, she decided on matriculating there, because I think she found something at Chicago that’s not so different from her experience at our own school. There’s a similarity there. The whole spirit of questioning and debating and intellectual pursuit––and the general craziness.”