Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
UMW, Chancellor High graduate making India her home
BY LIANA BAYNE
The Free Lance-Star
Jenna Fleming knew, at age 20, that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in India.
She spent 2 weeks there in 2010 with a group from Germanna Community College.
She was hooked.
“It had always been a place I wanted to go,” she said. “I decided I would finish college and go back.”
Fleming, a 2007 Chancellor High School graduate, finished her bachelor’s degree in sociology at University of Mary Washington in December 2011.
Then she packed up and went to Udaipur, India, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan.
Initially, Fleming planned to teach at a community center in Udaipur for a few months, then move on to another center in Jaipur, a city about 250 miles away.
But Fleming, 22, found a few reasons to stay in Udaipur.
She loved teaching English to her students, who ranged in age from 4 to 15.
She also fell in love and got engaged.
Many college students who study or volunteer abroad say the experience changes them. Fleming’s time in India charted an entirely new course for her life.
This month, she’s going back for good.
When she returns to Udaipur, Fleming will have moved from volunteer to volunteer coordinator ranks for the Development Action Awareness Nationwide (DAAN) Foundation. The nonprofit organization was created to help educate poor children in and around Udaipur, specifically in the Badgaon area, where children in gypsy communities often lack access to regular schooling.
She’ll live in Udaipur, recruiting and helping new volunteers who follow in her footsteps.
Fleming and two or three other volunteers met with as many as 30 kids each day. School started around 2:30 in the afternoon and lasted for about three hours each day, Monday through Friday.
Fleming said the school has just three walls. Volunteers painted parts of the walls with chalkboard paint to make blackboards, and separated children into groups by age.
GATHERING THE GOODS
Before going to India, Fleming raised money to buy two laptop computers for the school. The laptops enhanced her teaching. She was able to show educational movies and help older kids learn basic skills.
“Some of these kids had never seen this type of media before. So it was really interesting to see how the kids would quiet down and become entranced by the moving images.”
While Hindi and English are the national languages in India, many of the children Fleming’s group helps don’t speak English because they’ve never attended public schools.
Fleming described them as gypsies, living in makeshift tent-like houses and moving frequently.
TWO SIDES OF ONE CITY
Fleming said Udaipur is a prosperous and growing metropolitan area, but the gap between rich and poor is striking.
“You’ll see people going to the bathroom in the street, but someone driving a BMW going past them,” she said.
Fleming got to experience both sides of India’s wealth gap as she stayed with a family in the city, arranged by the DAAN Foundation, but frequently spent time in the poor village on the outskirts of Udaipur.
The families of her students “were so happy and hospitable,” she said. They shared whatever they had.
In addition to teaching basic English, the school works to combat malnutrition through a healthy meals program. Every child who attends gets a serving of fruits, vegetables, snack crackers and trail mix at school each day.
“It’s an incentive for them to come to school,” Fleming said.
Because many of the kids hadn’t attended public schools, teaching could sometimes be frustrating. The children had never been required to sit quietly and listen, Fleming said.
“Some days, I felt like maybe I’m not making a difference,” Fleming said. “But by the end of my time there, they had all improved a lot.”
Close friend Heather Anderson says Fleming is perfect for the job.
“She’s so good with kids. And I know she likes helping other people.”
Anderson, who lives in Fredericksburg, said she was a little shocked, but pleased, to hear Fleming was making India her home.
‘WE WERE INSEPARABLE’
Aside from finding work with the DAAN Foundation, Fleming found happiness with her fiancé, 27-year-old Ishaan Singh Bansal.
Fleming met Bansal about two weeks after her arrival in India through DAAN supervisor Samvit Audichya.
“We were inseparable since we met,” Fleming said.
She got lucky. Parents still arrange marriages for many Indians her age. But Bansal’s parents had what Fleming called a “love marriage,” meaning they chose to marry, and they’re OK with their son having a love marriage with a Westerner.
“I get along really well with his family,” she said.
Fleming and Bansal, who has a master’s in business management and currently runs his family’s security business, are planning to marry early next year.
Fleming said she has her parents’ approval as she establishes a life so far away. It helps that her three sisters still live in the Fredericksburg area.
“They’re happy I found something in my field that I love doing,” she said, “though they’re sad I’ll be far away.”
The family plans to travel to India next year for her wedding.
Finding herself abroad has put life into perspective.
“You always feel like you have all these problems,” she said. “But after being there, it makes you think, ‘Maybe my problems aren’t that big of a deal.’”
Liana Bayne: 540/374-5444