Atlas Alumni: Meet Rhea from our first High School trip to India

Rhea Bennett went on Atlas Workshops’ first high school summer trip to India.  Rhea just graduated from high school in Sharon, MA, this past spring. She will be enrolling as a freshman at Harvard University next fall after taking a bridge year to explore the world more and get some professional experience under her belt before starting college. Rhea came by the office to catch up (two years after her trip)  and chat with me about her experience with Atlas. Kelsey D: So first off, tell me about trip that you went on with Atlas.

Rhea B: It was in the summer of 2013, and the trip was to Southern India – Bangalore, Chennai, Madurai, Kochi, and Munnar.  The focus of the trip was India’s education system.  We got to visit underfunded schools and alternatively, private schools that were considered “high class.” There is a tiered school system in India because of the huge spread in wealth in the country. Everything is heavily impacted by the history of the caste system too.

KD: What was special about your visits to these schools?

RB: Getting to interact with the local students and teachers at the schools provided us with insight that I don’t think we could have gotten elsewhere.  What was interesting was that a couple of the schools were really well-off, and had even better amenities than some American schools. Of course, the majority of Indian schools are not like that, but exploring this contrast was really helpful for us and made this trip different from a typical service trip.  One really special experience was with an after-school program we collaborated with called Vidiyal.  It’s basically a safe space for kids who live in the slums to stay while their parents are still at work.  We got to work with these kids who didn’t speak english – who were pretty much our age – and learn about their lives in a very hands-on way.

Vidiyal

KD: If the kids didn’t speak English, how did you communicate with them?

RB: The students at Vidiyal didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Tamil, so at first we tried out communicating through a translator who was fluent in both languages.  After a while, we realized it was easier to just speak to them using the few words we did know, and mime out the rest.  I felt like this weird form of communication actually helped strengthen our bond, and I’m still in touch with some of the students I met there.

KD: What was one of your favorite memories from the trip?

RB: Honestly, the whole two weeks! I felt like I learned so much in such a short span of time, and being in India helped open my eyes to social injustice and education reform issues. The project helped focus and exposed me to a new level of curiosity and impact. But, on a more shallow note, I loved trying new Indian food and looking at all the saris.  I’m really interested in costume design and fashion, so seeing all the traditional Indian clothing was really exciting.

KD:  What words come to mind when describing Atlas Workshops?

RB: Collaboration, respect, new ideas, life-changing!

KD: Can you elaborate a little more? What did you write about for the final research project?

RB:  Our final project was called “Writings on the Wall,” referring to the notion that you can tell a lot about a school by the decorations hanging on the wall.  For example, in some of the poorer schools, there were outdated maps that still included the Soviet Union, and pictures of George Bush on the wall, even though he hadn’t held office for five years.  Meanwhile, in the “high class” schools, they had really advanced stuff up on the walls, like smart boards, and had some rooms dedicated to all different sorts of subjects – including art and music. One girl in our group was thinking about transferring to India for a semester.

KD: How did the trip impact you?

RB: I’m definitely a more mature person because of the program.  I learned a lot about other cultures and ways of life and I feel like I brought that knowledge and respect back with me to my everyday life when I returned from the trip.  India was sometimes overwhelming because it was so different from my lifestyle back home.  For example, driving there is crazy!

KD: Do they drive on the left or right side of the road there?

RB: All sides! (laughs)

KD: Okay, last question. Was the Atlas Trip what you expected?

RB: The whole trip, and team, exceeded my expectations! Actually, now I’m searching for a new international program for my bridge year and no other companies’ programs are living up to the standards of engagement, exploration, and fun that Atlas set.

Rhea traveled on our Global Innovators High School Summer Trip during the summer after her junior year in high school.  What are YOU doing this summer? Check out our Summer 2016 trips today!