Once again, on December 26th the UNC-CH, School of Social Work will travel to India for our second study abroad trip.  With us this year, we take fifteen participants and a new faculty member, Mary Beth Hernandez, our School’s Associate Dean for Advancement.  Our fifteen participants are comprised of  ten UNC-CH Students (5  from Social Work, 1 from City and Regional Planning, 1 from Public Administration 1 from Pharmacy and two undergraduates), one undergraduate from East Carolina University one professor from the University of Michigan, School of Social Work, two social worker wanna be’s and an eighth grader from A.L. Stanback Middle School.  Together we will experience the excitement of learning about India and it’s people, customs, religions and their solutions to social problems.  As importantly, our individual world view’s will expand as we learn to appreciate and respect another culture.  Please join us as we write about our experiences and misadventures!  I’m sure we will have many stories to tell.



While on my journey through India many assumptions were broken and new views were formed  about India. This journey not only permitted me to view India differently, but to comprehend and appreciate what other countries have to offer. But most of all, my journey through India pushed me to examine myself….and what I found was that I can do whatever it is I set out to do. Having witnessed women in a country where women are looked upon as inferior, having witnessed visionaries build agencies and organizations from the ground up with nothing other than their personal savings, having witnessed people selflessly helping others in India where resources are not as available as in the USA; I know that I can go forward with my dreams of opening a public boarding school for at-risk girls in grades 9-12.

What I can appreciate most about this journey is the inspiration gained from the community service organizations we visited to go after my dream, the networking this opportunity has afforded me, the life long friendships that were made, and the first hand experience of the Indian culture—food, dress, day to day happenings…. I was most impressed with how communal the society was, the strong family unit, how everyone depended on someone (and it was alright), the work ethic, and how the people believed strongly in following one’s passion.


  1. Everything you learn from the American school curriculum and/or in text books is not true–and other times it is only true in a specific context
  2. Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion
  3. One day there were four men walking. Three were learned men and one was a simple man. They came upon a dead tiger. Each of the learned men used their knowledge to bring the tiger back to life. After coming to life, the tiger killed all of the men except the simple man who had left before the tiger was brought back to life. The simple man said, “Although I am not book smart, I am smart enough to know not to bring a tiger back to life because he can kill!” Moral: Book smarts is great, but street smarts is needed. One must be well-rounded.
  4. “You can not fight ideas (abstract) with physical violence (concrete)”
  5. “The universe is a manifestation of your intelligence..”
  6. “Jesus, Allah, Buddha…doesn’t matter the name  it is the same spirit. Just as if my name was Sarah, I would still be who I am.” –Dr. V. Karad

Social interventions utilized in India to combat the lack of educational resources for children

The big argument in America at this time is what programs/schools/interventions can be implemented to close the achievement gap and ensure a quality education for all children.  Charter schools, home schools, public boarding schools and private schools have all been alternatives for the traditional public school in hopes to close the achievement gap and ensure a quality education for all children. There is also a reform taking place in the Indian school system. A huge issue in India is schools do not have the appropriate resources to help students with learning and physical disabilities; however, schools are moving to inclusion and other structures to better aid students who have learning, physical, and behavioral disabilities. Some reasons resources are not available:

  • No one assess students who have disabilities that are not seen by the eye
  • Testing isn’s done until a student begins to constantly fail
  • Parents do not easily accept that their children have a disability

Although the above factors hold true, the preconceptions of disabilities are slowly beginning to be broken down due to more education on the respective topic. Mental health agencies are a new concept being integrated into schools and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are used for students with disabilities just as they are in public American schools. For students ages three to eleven who have behavioral problems the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is used. ABA is a scientific one on one technique used by teachers for teaching basic educational, social, and life skills. The three main principals are reshaping of behavior, reinforcement/reward, and prompting. In order to receive ABA services, students must be referred by a doctor and parents must pay for the testing; for this reason many students do not receive the services. The MAS is used for more complexed behavioral issues. Dyslexia is another educational issue that affects students, but is not properly treated. Instruction for students with dyslexia is given in English, due to the fact that many students do not speak English, many students do not receive the help they need.

There are many intervention models that focus on social care, change within the individual or family to function more effectively in the situations or environment, and on prevention strategies to decrease the incidence of the problem/issue by stopping the causes before it begins. While in India I visited several agencies and organizations that focused on interventions centered around education for both adults and children that I felt could have a large positive impact if implemented in America:

  • Maher- provides housing and enrichment for children; vocational skills for adults
  • Poona School and Home for Blind Girls- houses and educates young girls academically and provides life skills; provides vocational skills for blind adults
  • Aapla Ghar (Old age home, Orphanage, rural training center)- Provide housing and resources for orphans and elderly adults as well as vocational training for rural residents
  • Eklavya Nyas- provides education and resources for students who are shunned in public schools due to being children of parents who are infected with HIV/AIDS,  who are commercial sex workers, alcoholics and/or single parents.

Historical, cultural, ethnic/racial, religious, political, and/or socio-economic factors in India and in the United States that impact education

Currently, the education system in India is comprised of primary education, secondary education, senior secondary education and higher education. Similar to that of the American education system the primary education consists of eight years of education and secondary and senior secondary education consists of two years of education. One can go on to higher education in India after passing the higher secondary education (12th standard). Depending on the track, higher graduation in India can take three to five years and post graduate courses are generally two to three years. One can also choose to go forward after completing post graduation and complete research in various educational institutes.

India is taking strides to develop the higher education system. The University Grants Commission was established by the government in 1953 to regulate the standard and spread of higher education in India. Progress has been marked by the increase of higher educational institutes in India. The higher education system in India is made up of more than 17000 colleges, 20 central universities, 217 State Universities, 106 Deemed to Universities and 13 institutes of National importance. This number will soon inflate as the setting up of 30 more central universities, 8 new IITs, 7 IIMs and 5 new Indian Institutes of Science are now proposed.

Although in the years prior to 1947 the education one received in India was based on one’s caste and gender, after gaining independence in 1947 education became a priority for the government and was made available to all. The 86th constitutional amendment has also made elementary education a fundamental right for children between six and fourteen. According to the 2001 census, the total literacy rate in India is 65.38% this is low in comparison to countries who have a 100% literacy rate and America who has a 99% literacy rate. There is also a signifiant gap between rural Indian areas which is 59.4% and that of 80.3% of the urban population which illustrates that the educational system in India has yet to reach its pinnacle. Although a greater number of children are afforded education in America as it compares to India, the quality of education a large number of American students are receiving is lacking. Although the two countries are in different positions as far as development, America’s children lack quality education is due mostly to the same type of  reasons as India’s children– socio-economic status and race.

While in India I spoke with students pursuing Master of Business Administration degrees and Law degrees about their thoughts on India’s public education system. Below are various facts, opinions and observations the students shared with me:

  • Lack of access of education to the marginalized sections of the society which is significantly due to the fact that public education in India only dates back fifty-four years
  • Although it is mandatory for students age fourteen and younger to attend school, the government does not enforce this law: 1) It is difficult to account for all students because of the very rural areas and slums 2) Transportation for those who do not live in walking distance of a school in rural areas is scarce 3) Children are needed to add to the family’s income; school would interfere
  • By educating the wealthy, the rich stay in power

US Public Education vs. Indian Public Education

The American education system is currently going through a major reform due to the fact that there is such a large achievement gap among races, socio-economic classes, and English as a second language learners. This compares to the Indian education system in that the children of poorer citizens and those who live in rural areas do not receive the same educational opportunities as those of the more wealthier families and/or who live in the more urbanized areas.

As education is one of the chief  tools to break the cycle of poverty. The lack of quality education for all people is both a large issue in the United States and India; however,  due to the opportunities and the fact that the United States has been independent from British rule for over 200 years as opposed to India’s sixty-four year independence, the problem appears to be more dire in India.

I am taking this journey to India because I enjoy traveling, learning about other people and cultures — from food to fashion to religion. I also feel that this journey will add to my world view of education.

Travel helps one to understand people; breaking down barriers and prejudices!

My key questions:

  • How do Indians view Americans?
  • What is the government’s role in providing resources (health, education, housing, etc.) for its citizens?
  • What is Hinduism and how does it affect one’s daily life?
  • What is the average Indian’s wishes, hopes, dreams? For country? For future generations?
  • How does one view education?

I  am most anticipating the opportunities to go into schools of all levels and understand the educational system. I am also expecting to meet new and exciting people, experience the Indian arts, eat new foods, and shop!!

I  fear that so much will be covered in such a short amount of time that I will not be able to take away any in-depth/concrete information. I fear getting sick. I fear being looked at differently (negative) because I am an African American — due to prior knowledge that may have about African Americans and due to the fact that fair skin is highly looked upon. I fear seeing extreme poverty. I fear being taken advantage of.

My family and friends are concerned about my safety. They question why I would want to leave what is safe and convenient for what is unknown and what they perceive to possibly be dangerous. They also are intrigued about how I feel taking this trip can benefit me.

I  “assume”  India:

  • Has no middle class. The citizens are extremely poor or extremely rich
  • Animals of all kinds roam the streets freely
  • Men are “perverts”
  • Women dress extremely modest and are extremely submissive
  • Peace and harmony is the number one goal for all people
  • Everyone is comfortable with their position in life and accepts it as their fate

I imagine I will smell spices, see beautiful brown people wearing sarees and linen shirts of golds, oranges, and reds! Some will be excited to see Americans so they can pick our brains about the Land of Milk and Honey while others will be begging because they feel that Americans are rich. Hopefully, I will return home having dispelled some of these assumptions.

A journey I have taken that was much like this was embarked on while I was an undergraduate student, I went to Pueblo, Mexico for two weeks to observe the Mexican education system and culture. It was very useful especially when I began to teach because I was able to understand the learning styles of my Hispanic students and their actions and feelings towards education. The experience also helped me to form a more personal relationship with those students due to the fact that I saw first hand where many of them were from and what an American education not only meant to them, but to their families as well.

My hopes for the children of the world is that they all receive a proper and equal education, health care, and a chance to reach their goals whatever they may be.

I am not knowledgeable on the relationship between the USA and India. On one hand I hope that the USA will and does assist in anyway possible in putting programs and policies in place to help the country thrive; but, only if India ask for that assistance. Often, the USA becomes involved in other’s affairs posing as the superior one, leaving others to not want to accept aid from the USA.

Their are several people who I wish could accompany me on this seminar:

Anupa — One of my closest friends, Anupa is first generation American. Her parents are natives of India and I had the pleasure of visiting them days before I began my Indian journey. They shared with me what I must do, see and eat; as well as what to watch out for. I would love for Anupa to accompany me on this trip in order for me to observe her interactions with native Indians and get her views as a first generation American and how or lack of how she feels that she connects with Indians who live in India and vice-versa.

My parents — My parents have never traveled out of the country other than to tourist areas. I am interested in how this trip would affect their views of other countries especially my father who seems to have negative views about non-Americans and/or non-blacks.

My former students, nieces, and nephews — American children seem to be arrogant, taking much for granted, and always wanting instant gratification. I think it is mainly because they have not seen or experienced extreme poverty. Although, many may have seen homeless or poor US citizens, they tend to take on an “it’s their fault” attitude and carry on with their daily lives. I feel it is important to show children first hand what it is like living in other parts of the world, both good and bad as a means to educate them and to show them how grateful they should be for what living in the USA has afforded them.

Although I did not share this information with any of the people who I would like to accompany me on the trip, I can share my experience with them through my journal, blogs, pictures, literature received while in India and simply telling them about the agencies I visited and what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and did.

The group with whom I will be traveling can be helpful to me during this seminar by sharing their past experiences, assumptions, and views on what we will experience as a group. Once back in the USA I hope to be able to depend on them for whatever project I decide to do to benefit India and in applying various useful strategies and techniques learned in India to the appropriate areas of American society.

Our visit to India opened up many new ideas for me about conceptualizing social justice and approaching social service delivery. As we toured different communities and organizations, I felt especially drawn to the older people I met: ancient, frequently toothless women in resplendent sarees, wiry bald men holding canes: elders working, resting, and talking. Perhaps it is the former senior case manager in me that led me to connect with the older people in the places we visited. Often, especially in urban areas, the senior adults were hidden from view. I found myself searching for elders and wondering where they were.

As such, one agency that made a positive impression was Apala Ghar (www.apalaghar.com), an intergenerational home for orphaned children and elders who lack family support. About a dozen seniors and another dozen school-aged children live in a single large home complex in rural Maharashtra state. The agency’s small size, countryside location, and warm welcome gave the place a family atmosphere, and quite honestly stole my heart. To my knowledge, there are no organizations that provide housing and social services for both children and senior adults in the United States. Apala Ghar serves as a safety net for some senior adults without other housing options, for whom homelessness would otherwise be a serious risk. The agency’s work takes place amid a troubling backdrop of change in India’s family systems. Its principles of intergenerational inclusion honor India’s familial heritage and suggest that interdependence may be a useful cultural value to guide social work practice with elders.

Indian elders, like their international counterparts, are living longer and requiring greater care for longer periods of time, a reality that has burdened many modern families in India (Plath, 2009). India’s population of people over age 60 may top 100 million – about 10% of the nation’s total population – by 2013 (Plath, 2009, p. 217). Of India’s current population of people over age 65, one third live below the poverty line (Gupta, 2009). Recent increases in pensions for Indian elders may help to alleviate this poverty (Margolis, 2011). In comparison, among the United States’ 36 million seniors, 9.4% live below the poverty line (Cawthorne, 2008). U.S. elders may have better overall health than their Indian peers: A comparative study of older adults in New York City and Delhi found that Indian elders had significantly poorer grip strength than U.S. elders controlled for age, gender, medical conditions, and self-rated disability (Albert, Alam, & Nizamuddin, 2006). The authors suggest that differences in nutrition, work, and access to medical care throughout the life course may account for the variation in strength.

The individualistic, self-reliant culture of the United States values independence and self-determination for elders, and indeed, for all of us. American senior adults tend to live independently from extended family, with their adult children becoming heads of their own nuclear family households. Elders who can no longer care for themselves may be institutionalized in nursing homes or care facilities.

In India, male family members traditionally bear the responsibility for caring for elders (Gupta, 2009; Plath, 2009). Indeed, living with adult children is the preferred living arrangement for elders (Ara, 1997). Bhattacharya and Shibusawa’s (2009) research on Indian seniors who have immigrated to the United States echoes this theme of familial interconnectedness. The authors note that in traditional Indian culture, individuals are viewed as nested in family and community contexts; obligation to family is valued above all else. They recommend that advocates acknowledge the importance of a family role in decision making for Indian elders (Bhattacharya & Shibusawa, 2009).

However, some researchers have noted an erosion of the Asian cultural norm of filial piety (Gupta, 2007; 2009). Urbanization has resulted in a widespread change from the traditional joint family system – in which multiple generations cohabitate and elders are honored members of the family – to the nuclear family system typical in the western world. This shift has changed the social landscape for Asian elders (Hirve, Juvekar, Lele, & Agarwal, 2010; Taqui, Itrat, Qidwai, & Qadri, 2007).

A 2007 study of four hundred elders in Pakistan sought to investigate the idea that urbanization promotes nucleation of family systems and a decrease in care and support for the elderly (Taqui, Itrat, Qidwai, & Qadri). The authors found that seniors living in nuclear family arrangements were 4.3 times as likely to experience clinical depression than their counterparts living in joint family arrangements. They concluded that the current transition in family systems may cause a “major deleterious effect on the physical and mental health of the elderly” (Taqui, Itrat, Qidwai, & Qadri, 2007, p. 1).  Likewise, Hirve, Juvekar, Lele, and Agarwal (2010) found that joint family structure – in which elders are a social if not financial asset to their children – is a protective factor for Indian elders. As the joint family system wanes, single elder women may be at highest risk for marginalization. Patriarchal norms often cause widowed women to be disadvantaged and discriminated against in Indian society (Plath, 2009).

In India, research indicates that adherence to traditional values eases the experience of caring for aging family members, hopefully resulting in increased wellbeing for elders. Gupta’s (2009) study in the Indian city of Allahabad found that caregivers who adhered more strongly to the cultural norm of dharma, or moral duty to provide care for elderly parents, felt less burdened by their caregiving responsibilities. Higher income levels, younger age, and being a male – ostensibly with fewer household responsibilities to juggle – also contributed to lower levels of perceived burden for Indian caregivers (Gupta, 2009).

In the absence of the joint family system, some caregivers may experience increased stress and burden. Gupta’s research on measuring caregiver burden found that a single adult child may cohabitate with one or more elder family members without receiving financial or social support from siblings. These unsupported caregivers may experience a heightened sense of entrapment in their role (Gupta, 2007). Gupta recommends that social work practice with elders in India include publicly honoring caregivers’ sense of dharma, developing formal and informal supports – including cash assistance – for caregivers, and affirming the appropriateness of institutional care when deemed necessary (2009).
Indian elders living in joint and nuclear family systems are at risk for mistreatment. Chokkanathan and Lee’s (2006) study of mistreatment of elders living in Chennai, India, found that 14% of the sample of 400 elders had experienced mistreatment; verbal abuse was the most common form of mistreatment, followed by financial abuse. Neglect and physical abuse were also present. Adult children and their spouses, both male and female, were the most prominent perpetrators, indicating that social and financial stressors interfere with the principle of family responsibility and dharma.
The independence of elders has come to be a common goal in international social and economic policies (Plath, 2009). Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) have developed aging policies honoring the principle of independence. In individual-focused societies such as the United States, independence resonates as a goal. U.S organizations serving senior adults are honoring and supporting independence for elders.

Before beginning the Master of Social Work program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I worked for two years as a bilingual case manager at Madison, Wisconsin’s North/Eastside Senior Coalition (NESCO). NESCO is a nonprofit organization which provides a fitting example of the value of independence. Its mission is to “enhance the quality of life for all senior adults by providing programs, advocacy, and resources to assist them to remain independent, active, and influential…” (North/Eastside Senior Coalition, n.d.). Although some of NESCO’s senior adult clients are connected with supportive family members, the responsibility for ensuring seniors’ wellbeing does not fall on family. Rather, the agency and its staff seek to make seniors as independent as their circumstances permit. Our U.S. cultural and legal norms protect elders’ individual freedoms; for example, by ensuring senior adults’ confidentiality from family members except with express permission or in harmful situations. Social Security retirement benefits, pensions, Medicare, and federally funded apartments available only to seniors all epitomize the safety net our government has created to support elders financially but not socially.

There may exist a disconnect between the concept of independence and the traditional cultural values of some countries, including India. Urbanization, modernization, and intergenerational conflict are marginalizing the aging population in India. Yet India’s National Policy on Older Persons (1999, as cited by Plath, 2009) promotes family responsibility – particularly of eldest sons – rather than the western norm of independence for older adults (Plath, 2009). There is evidence that fledgling aging advocacy groups and nonprofit senior organizations may promote conversation about independence in India; however, Indian social values and policies reflect a persistent expectation that families bear the primary responsibility for older adults (Plath, 2009). It seems that independence is a culturally bound policy principle, not universally appropriate.

Interdependence may be a goal that is realistic and appropriate for both Indian and U.S. elders. A systems approach to social work recognizes that each individual, family, and community participates in myriad social, political, and economic systems. We are members of families, consumers participating in economies, students interacting with schools, recipients and givers and clients experiencing social service and legal systems, and we also engage in any number of other systems and processes. No person operates independently from the ecosystem in which she finds herself. Knowing how and when to depend on others need not be considered a deficit or weakness; instead, it can be conceptualized as a strength or skill. Whether we are members of nuclear family based societies or uphold a joint family tradition, each person has needs to meet and relationships to maintain. This interdependent nature of our humanity should be recognized and celebrated.

Although Apala Ghar’s model of housing non-family seniors and children together seems unique, its embrace of intergenerational relationships is not. NESCO boasts its own Intergenerational Program, which, “provides exciting opportunities for senior adults to interact with younger generations, sharing their skills and knowledge, and at the same time enjoying the energy, creativity, and vitality of young minds” (North/Eastside Senior Coalition, n.d.). A strengths-based perspective recognizes that individuals of all ages and backgrounds have skills and gifts to offer others. Two organizations on opposite sides of our planet have recognized and capitalized on the reciprocal benefit of intergenerational relationships.

During our group’s visit to Apala Ghar, the agency’s founder Mr. Vijay Phalnikar shared that many of the senior residents share a special bond with certain children, just as other community members might enjoy a grandparent-grandchild relationship. To welcome their guests from North Carolina, U.S.A., the children of Apala Ghar performed songs for us. Not to be left out, an intrepid elder gentleman performed a joyous song and dance routine. The message was clear: We all have something worthwhile to offer here. Although we visited more than one agency that served as a home to its clients, Apala Ghar felt the most like a home to me. We were warmly welcomed, not as academic observers but as honored house guests.

The agency’s latest offering is an invitation to stay awhile: a set of guest residences available to accommodate volunteers and visitors. Mr. Phalnikar hopes that these recently completed units will attract Indian and international volunteers and interns, garnering assistance  and awareness for Apala Ghar. In addition, a nightly fee will assist the agency financially and help it to maintain and expand its programs, serving children and elders in rural India. Social enterprise and creative funding solutions are likely to become more common as Indian agencies seek to become more sustainable, especially without the dependable support of government funds. Apala Ghar is truly creating a supportive and vibrant community, honoring elders by returning to India’s joint family ethos and using it to lift up children and elders who have been “orphaned.” We can all learn from Apala Ghar’s work, and from the senior adults around us.


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Ara, S. (1997). Housing facilities for the elderly in India. Ageing International, 23, 107-114.

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Taqui, A. M., Itrat, A., Qidwai, W., & Qadri, Z. (2007). Depression in the elderly: Does family system play a role? A cross-sectional study. BMC Psychiatry, 7. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-7-57