A Conversation with Adwitia Grung, Former Trainee, Partnership in Education Program, Kathmandu, Nepal

April 20, 2021

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in April 2021 graduate student Tierra Hatfield (G’22) interviewed Adwitia Grung, a former trainee with the Partnership in Education (PiE) program at St. Xavier’s College (SXC) in Kathmandu, Nepal. In this interview, Grung discusses her experience as a former PiE trainee and reflects on studying at SXC during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, like your background and your educational history?

My name is Adwitiya and currently I'm living in Kathmandu, and I was born here. Currently I'm doing my bachelor's in social work in the third year from St. Xavier school itself and yeah, my educational background is also from Kathmandu itself, so I guess that is it for my background. 

How are you or were you involved in PiE?

I worked there [at PiE] as a trainee last year. Now, I'm in my third year, so currently I'm working with another organization—I'm involved in an environment setting right now.

Thinking back to before the COVID crisis, can you walk me through what a typical day for you at the university was like?

So, like on days that, like on most days, we had to come to PiE in the morning, so we had to reach the college by 6:15 am, so I had to wake up around 5:30 am and then come to the college. From 6:15/6:30 am to 7:45 am, we have the PiE classes, and after my classes, we used to have to read, because our college starts from only 9:30 am. So we could do anything we like and after that. The college would start at 9:30, and then it would end at around 2:33 pm, and after that, like most of the time, we used to have a lot of events, especially in college like we have a lot of events going on most of the days. Also adding on to that, since our subject is like practice and like a practical-based subject, that was also the reason why we would have a lot of programs going on after classes. And after that, yeah, I used to go back home, and that is how a day looked like.

How did you find out about the PiE program and when did you join the program?

I found PiE before COVID, I would like to talk about how I found PiE. So, my cousin sister she used to study at St. Xavier’s and she had worked at PiE, but during that time I was not a student of St. Xavier’s because I was doing my Plus Two. But even at that time, I knew about it [PiE], and I was quite inspired by the work that was being done in PiE, and I really wanted to work there if I ever became a student of St. Xavier. And my cousin’s brother also worked in PiE, so after seeing both of them do it, I knew I really wanted to, you know, be a part of this program. 

So luckily, I got into St Xavier’s and then, in my second year—actually in our first year, we were given a choice to choose PiE, but then at that time a lot of students wanted to be a part of PiE, so the students [trainees] were selected on the basis of like location, who would it be easier to come to PiE, so I could not be a part of it. But then, in my second year, I finally got to be a part of PiE. So yeah, that is how I became a part of PiE. We used to go every day [to PiE], except on the days that they would be an exception, I guess public holidays, when the college was closed, otherwise we used to go every day.

How did the PiE incorporate both the educational/academic side as well as the social development aspect into the program?

For the academic side, we gave them tutoring when they came to the PiE. Firstly, what we do is if they have any confusion with the assignments that they're doing [for their public schools] we help them with that. We don't directly teach them how to do that particular question or, you know, how to solve a particular question, but rather we teach them other easy questions related to that chapter, and then we see if they can do that. We do not want them to be so dependent on us that they stop doing every question at home and then come to ask us. We wanted them to feel that they themselves can solve the question so that is one of the main things that we use to keep in mind while teaching them. 

So on the academic side, that is one part and also to support them especially during exams.We would also have volunteers for the busier section, the students who wanted to help us were those volunteers from Plus Two, and we would divide them into different groups. Because like while one teacher might be able to help one particular student, the volunteers helping three students would definitely make it easier for them to understand, so that is one view we would get around with teaching them and like I guess that is it about the academy side.

For their social development and their personal development, we used to conduct a lot of programs. For example, we used to conduct a competition or public speaking or some days you would even conduct a production. Yes, we would form competition and while doing that, we used to encourage all of the students to participate, like as much as we could, we used to motivate them to do that because that—we felt that, that is the age where they are just discovering themselves, so helping them to be a part of as much of the program as possible, to feel that they will be able to like find their right interests. 

And also, we used to conduct sports day, and we used to have fun activities like going for picnics as well, so even the students who are not really good in studies—this lets them to shine during the sports day. Like we used to provide them with certificates or medals, and we would see their confidence being boosted. Sometimes the students will only do good in sports after we compliment them and then you know focus on them, and this makes them show improvements in their studies as well because, like everyone likes getting attention, especially children. 

So getting attention from the teachers would definitely make a difference, so yeah and like, especially in regards to public speaking, we used to, especially in the class that I was assigned to, what I used to do there is that I used to assign them days that each particular student is going to come up and speak. One today and another student is going to speak tomorrow and like that, everyone had to speak. If I have some way that I will go back then, when I see the students improving it, really you know, makes me happy and it shows that somehow in some way, those small moments of helping them and then bringing them up on the stage has definitely helped them.

What classes were you teaching when you were teaching at PiE and how many students were in the program?

So when I had started my time in PiE, the classes were divided in quite a different way. Like right now it's, I don't exactly know how, it's like the class division. But then at that time, like the first part of my time at PiE was to teach Grade 7 students to read, [Grades] 7 and 8, and after a certain day we felt that the Grade 8 students needed more help and it would be better if only they were in a particular class. Also during that time, as far as I remember, in Grade 7 there were a lot of students, like maximum number of students were in Grade 7 so we felt that having them [Grade 8 students] in a separate class would make it easier for us [trainees] to properly focus on them, so I was in charge of the Grade 7 at that time.

I don't exactly remember how many exactly were in a particular class, but then last year we had taken a total of, I guess, 60 to 65 students. Okay. The program in all of the classes from Grade 1 to 10. In Grade 7 only, I guess, there were 10, I guess 15 to16, something like that, so I guess we had 15 students. I don't exactly remember. For each grade, there were 10 trainees in total, it was two trainees. I was two trainees in one class, and then three trainees in another class.

Could you tell me a little bit about the house visits that the PiE program conducted? What were they like and did you do any house visits with your students?

Yeah, sure. So yeah, like, since the students, they were from the settlement areas, teaching them and teaching students who come from a regular, like you know middle-class background, it's definitely different. So while going on house visits, our main focus would be understanding their family, because sometimes what happens is some students, they used to act very like the were very naughty in the class, and they were not good in studies, and no matter how many times we told them, they would just, you know, not listen to us and it would be hard for us. But then after going for visits, we would understand that it was because of their family background. Like there sometimes what would happen is that their family, like their parents had been separated. Some student’s parents separated but sometimes, you know, like they used to live with their relatives, so it would not be comfortable for them, so it would be situations like this that would help us properly understand the children. 

After doing the home visits it would be easier for us to, you know, help the student in a better way, because that would widen our understanding of the students, so it would be easier for us to help them. During the home visits, we would also talk properly with the parents, and doing so would help them like understand their child in a better way, because sometimes what they would feel is that at home, the child may just be playing games with them or going of the house or the parents may be frustrated at times and then school the child or you know. After we went for the home visit and when we talked to them [the parents] and told them that they are actually good in this particular field or they're actually trying to improve, they [the parents] would try to, you know, understand their child in a better way.

Sometimes, like parents, they would not be open to sending their kids to extracurricular activities because they used to feel that they should only study. But then after going to home visits and after us making them understand, in a lot of cases, they would be open to the idea of sending their kids to after-school activities like for the students to participate in them.

For example, I remember one of my students who really liked dancing, and her mom, she was not really open to the idea of sending her to the dance class because now what the student would do is she would usually be with her friends, roam around, and come back home late. So like that [her mom] thinks that with one more thing that she's going to get more distracted if she was in a dance class. But then we went for a home visit and we properly made her understand that if you send her to the dance class then maybe she will not be involved in it, like she might not go out with friends much if she gets to go to the dance class. So yeah, I guess, that is how we used to do home visits, and we felt that home visits were definitely really helpful.

Were the extracurricular activities that you talked about, like the dancing, outside of the PiE’s morning program or embedded within the PiE program?

Most of the activities would be during that time [morning PiE program from 6:30 am to 8:30 am], like we would set some days, were in the calendar itself, where we would come to different kinds of competitions. But then certain programs, like very few programs, would be conducted outside of that time period because they would have to go to their school also, so we did not really want to hamper their, you know, other like studies in their school year. The dance classes were separate, like she wanted to go there as a separate hobby like after her school, and she wanted to get into a dance class.

Thinking back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, could you tell me about what happened when the COVID-19 crisis hit Nepal, and can you describe what you were thinking and feeling at the time?

So, like during the initial days when we read it, the world knew that it was really scary and a lot of people were dying around the world, but then in Nepal it hit after a certain time. In Nepal, it only came after some time of people dying in other countries, so like, although we were hearing a lot of news about the government and it was scary, like the situation had not really hit us properly. I recently found a video that went viral and in that [video], like that was I guess the last program we had before the university was closed, so in that video we were joking about the situation. And I remember, we had not really started to wear masks on a daily basis, even during that time, even when COVID had hit the world, since it was not really in Nepal. So we had not really started wearing masks on a daily basis, and we were joking about it so after lockdown started, and like even after lockdown started we obviously did not think it would go for such a long time. We thought, like me, you know, maybe, maximum it would go for like one month. 

But then, as it was extended, we, I, really started to understand the severity of the situation, and yeah also like the PiE program it ended very abruptly because the contagion was very high. We did not get to have a proper, you know, like proper farewell. We did not get to tell them [the PiE students] goodbyes, and now it is really sad because we taught them for one year and like we had the connection with them, so that was really sad. And also during the lockdown, we obviously had a lot of facilities, like as a middle-class family, and we have a lot of facilities compared to what the children have. So I was really worried about how the children and their families were because even on normal days, it was hard for them to, you know, get by with their daily food and daily expenses, so I could only think how hard it must have been for them during that time. 

And also for my fifth semester assessment, we had to do a case study, so during that time I had also done a case study on the topic of the difference of the impact of COVID on government school students—so I guess that was a big, so yeah it was like I got to properly understand what the children were going through. I only did the case study on some students, but I could, you know, generalize how it was for most of the students.

What were the decisions that the schools and universities made in response to the crisis, and how did that impact the marginalized students in the government schools? If you would be willing to share some of your research that you did, I would love to hear about your case study. 

Yeah, sure, so the decisions taken by a private school and a public school are like, there was a huge difference. After doing like a study, what I found out was that in the government school actually the students are government school, they are supposed to get free education, right, until Grade 8 according to our constitution. But then what I found out is that the schools, they were asking for a certain amount of money. That certain amount of money was not really that big, it was not really much for us middle-class people, like those belonging to my family, but then it was a lot for someone who did not have a proper job during lockdown and was having a hard time getting two meals per day. 

So that was a lot, like, hearing that they were asking for a certain amount of money, otherwise they actually were also going to online classes. But what happened is only the students who pay that certain amount of money will get to be promoted to the next class, they had their end of the year extended during the lockdown. And like I guess after two months to three months of a lockdown they were supposed to be promoted to a senior class, but then the student that I was doing my case study with, she was not getting to take the online classes because her parents could not pay the money, and she had three other, like three younger siblings and even they were not getting to study in the government schools. That was really shocking, and also it was frustrating because they were not able to pay and they were not getting to take the classes.

To clarify, the government schools were providing the online classes but not all students were not able to access the online classes because their families could not pay for it? Also, did you find any instances where lack of access to the internet or technology was also a barrier or was it only the additional tuition costs?

It was more about them not being able to get the money, and so they're not getting access to the [online] classes. I also did the case study with two students who came from good economic backgrounds. But one student comparatively had it better, you know, like her family had comparatively better income during the lockout because they had to shop, so that was a better source of income compared to the other student, whose parents used to do like daily activities—they did not have a source of income that they could depend on during the lockdown. 

So, even between the two students, one was getting access to the honors classes because her parents could afford it, and also because, as far as I know, she is a single child so I'm sure it was comparatively easy for parents to provide education. But then in the other student’s situation, she had three younger siblings so it was more hard for parents to provide them with the education. After that, as far as I know, she got into a certain program provided by one organization, and after that she also got the chance to get access to the honors classes.

I know that you were working with PiE before the COVID-19 crisis began, but do you know how the PiE program was able to respond to the COVID crisis? 

During the COVID, we could not really do much from PiE, it was completely stopped for most of the months of the lockdown, like seven months. We couldn't really do much, after only one year could people move around more freely. We wanted to do something, but somehow, we did not know what to do. So, the most we could do is talk to the students through calling them and then, you know, help them with a few of the exams. Like us, a few people worked together and then helped them with some of their exams. Like for one exam, they were having a difficulty, and I don't really remember which one, and for that exam some of us [from PiE] we had helped them for some time. 

In January, the PiE students were able to go back to in-person classes, but now the classes have stopped again, is that correct? Why were the PiE program and the schools shut down again?

Yes, the number of cases started going up suddenly, so you're right now the PiE program is also closed and also we have, like, the other classes from the bachelor’s programs [at SXC], they're also having online classes. Like our program, we have some exams so that will be on-site, because it was preplanned and everything was set up to be COVID-safe, but except for that, all of the other programs will be having online classes.

In your calls with the PiE students, do they talk to you about their frustrations or if they were struggling with COVID? 

Not really, like, I cannot have that many calls with them, it was only during the exam. But during my case study, I could see that some of the students were not getting access to the classes. One of the girls, she was actually one of the best students in the class, like, she was really good in her studies and her siblings they were actually not really interested in studying, and they were not really good in their studies as well. But, her, she was really good, right, so it was worse to see that someone who really wants to study and someone who has real potential for a better future, but she was not getting to study. So that was really sad and the family’s condition as well, it was, yeah, it was sad.

What changes did your college make in response to the COVID-19 crisis and how did it impact you?

So one of the greatest impact that it had, especially in the subject that I am studying which is social work, like I said, it's a very practice-based subject, so like, since all of our classes were online and we could not do anything except that—before we used to have so many practical-based programs, like almost every day. But now we started only having online classes and for the courses that we were studying, it would have been a lot better and a lot easier for us to understand if we could, you know, practically implement what we were learning, if we had gotten the chance. But then, because of the situation we cannot do that and most of what we were studying is in theory, so that's the biggest change that we had felt during that time. 

And like after the college opened after COVID again, we started having the fieldwork, like we had to go to different organizations and like during the COVID time, we were not affiliated with any organizations like we were supposed to. We are actually supposed to be interning in a certain organization, like all of us, we need to do that right in our second year. I became a part of PiE in my first year, but right now I'm a part of another organization, so similarly, we were supposed to have that now, but then because of COVID we cannot do that, so we were lacking in the practical education side, like practically understanding it. 

Do you think that the college responded well and made decisions that supported the students during the COVID-19 crisis situation?

Yeah, I felt that the policy handled it well and also the teachers who were teaching us, they were really understanding and like prioritizing being our mentors as well as teachers. We used to talk about how we were feeling and that it's okay for us to feel frustrated, and like they used to say things that were really comforting during that time. Usually in Nepal, the educational background does not really incorporate the mental health side. But what our teachers were saying was really comforting, so I felt that the college handled it pretty well.

Are there any decisions that you would change about how the college responded to the crisis or do you have any suggestions that would have made it easier for students during the crisis?

No, I don't really think so. Like obviously there is always be room for improvement, but then right now I cannot really think of one. But I do feel that we could have done something or like we could have done a lot more for PiE if you know, if we had done a proper meeting like online meetings with my students with the teacher, the person who was like our supervisor. If we had come up with a plan. I now feel that we could have done a lot, like we could have done something for the students, so that's something I would have changed. 

Do you know if the PiE program has stopped completely because of the new wave of COVID-19, or are PiE trainees still engaged with their students?

Actually, I don't really know how they plan to move forward with it.

Okay, thank you so much for speaking to me about your experience during the crisis. It was so helpful to hear about your case study and how the crisis has affected different student populations in Kathmandu. Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything about the program or the university that you think is important that I didn't ask?

Not really, I think you pretty much covered everything that was important with the PiE program and the college.

Thank you so much, I really appreciate all your time. 

Thank you, thank you for having me.

Opens in a new window