Four years of college volleyball took Duke middle blocker Chelsea Cook coast to coast, north to south and to every time zone in the United States. Her work in Duke’s education program took her to classrooms of all grade levels, but it wasn’t until her final semester that she gained a global perspective on the teaching career she plans to pursue.
Cook, who will graduate this May after a four-year volleyball career in which she was one of Duke’s top players as a junior and senior, spent two weeks in January teaching and observing at the VidyaGyan school and Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida, India.
VidyaGyan and Shiv Nadar are part of a unique, two-fold educational initiative by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, whose primary goal is to provide children from rural India with more quality educational opportunities. The foundation, which runs both VidyaGyan and Shiv Nadar University, takes students from villages with limited educational opportunities and places them into a private boarding school. The group pays for the students’ schooling, room and board, food, clothing and medical expenses to put as little financial burden on the student and his or her family as possible.
While VidyaGyan serves as the boarding school, Shiv Nadar University provides high school and college-aged students in India the opportunity to study a variety of subjects in the tradition of an American liberal arts college. Such an opportunity is rare in India where students are funneled into a specific discipline from adolescence.
“They are one of the few liberal arts schools in India in general because basically in India, you have to decide what you’re going to do when you are a sophomore in high school and then you kind of get put on that track,” said Cook, who majored in psychology at Duke and plans to embark on a teaching career of her own. “[Shiv Nadar University] is really different in that kids are able to take medical and engineering classes and what they want to have a degree in, but they also have other passions that they’re able to study as well. I guess we take that for granted here at Duke.”
Duke University announced an international partnership with Shiv Nadar University this past November, and the Duke Peer Preparation Program that took Cook to the Indian university’s campus is one facet of that collaboration. Duke aims to use its Talent Identification Program (TIP) in conjunction with SNU to further develop strategies for educating gifted youth. According to Duke TIP executive director Martha Putallaz, the Duke TIP program has enrolled 4,200 Indian students since 2008.
“We have had the opportunity at the [Shiv Nadar] Foundation to visit with and partner with and engage in discussions with a number of the great universities of the world,” said Nikhil Sinha, vice chancellor of Shiv Nadar University. “But for some reason... there is a great connection between what Duke University is today and what SNU is aspiring to be.”
The collaborative effort provided a unique opportunity for Cook, who was able to observe classrooms ranging from elementary to university levels. What she saw in terms of operation were similar to what she was used to in the United States, which is no surprise considering that Shiv Nadar aims to emulate research universities in America, Duke University being one example. While the teaching format was similar, the main difference Cook saw was in how the students behaved in class.
“I thought that the level of student-attentiveness was amazing,” she said. “I think that’s just their respect over there and how they have so much respect for their elders. I think that obviously helps a lot in the classroom definitely, like when the kids are literally sitting on the edge of their seats in college. You don’t always see that here.”
Cook noted that the problems VidyaGyan and Shiv Nadar face also echo those of American educational institutions. Given India’s drastic gap in social classes, the schools face difficulties in helping students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds reach their potential. Similar to the United States, students from wealthier families tend to perform better in school and therefore enjoy more lucrative careers, while those from poorer backgrounds struggle at higher levels of education. That is a social issue that the Shiv Nadar Foundation aims to change and a reason why the group brought Duke on board to help.
Cook was one of 14 Duke students making the initial trek to India. Her experience is the first stage of Duke student involvement with Shiv Nadar, and the university has long-term plans to expand the program to include a “buddy system” where Duke students interact with one or several students through Skype before visiting the school.
The experience was invaluable for Cook, who is nearing completion of requirements to attain her elementary teaching license. She has student taught in a number of local elementary schools, and observing education on an international level only solidified her desire to pursue teaching as a career. She would like to teach younger children, specifically first-graders.
“The cute kids,” Cook added. “I loved first grade because they have a year of school under their belts and know how to do the whole school thing but are still really young and cute. I enjoy [seeing] where they start out at the beginning of the year to where they are at the end. They’re learning to write a lot of sentences and how to put everything down, and their reading skills grow a lot during that year.”