A Ray of Hope: Students “Journey” to India

Sometimes an uplifting “ray of hope” can be found in the most unexpected of places, even when people are separated by continents, oceans – or a pandemic. Such was the experience last week, when Mount Madonna School (MMS) senior students engaged via Zoom in substantial, in-depth conversations with other students, social activists and thought leaders in India.

The conversations were part of the students’ Ashakiran Project. Ashakiran is Hindi for a “ray of hope,” and for the MMS students it represents a positive intention to focus on an unusual learning journey that is part of Mount Madonna’s Values in World Thought program.

“While there are many organizations and people students would have met with if we’d been able to travel in person, they were still able to engage in several consequential conversations via Zoom,” said Ward SN Mailliard. Mailliard founded the Values in World Thought program, and co-teaches with Shannon Kelly.

Senior Sunrise: Twelfth grade students gathered on a campus hillside to reflect and watch the sunrise before beginning the final day of their India learning journey.

“Recognizing the extremely difficult conditions in India we were deeply touched that those with whom we spoke were so open and willing to spend time with us,” continued Mailliard. “They were a ray of hope, as well as courage, for us.”

For more than 20 years, MMS juniors and seniors have traveled every other year to India or South Africa. For three decades plus they’ve taken biennial trips to Washington, D.C. These learning journey rites of passage introduce MMS students directly to those who lead in the larger world.

“As with everything that has changed this year, so have the learning journeys here at Mount Madonna School,” commented senior Savannah Cambell. “We have had to rethink our past traditions and create new ones, which is exactly what we seniors are doing with this year’s India trip. As with any loss, we need to acknowledge there is sadness around what couldn’t be, but after processing and hearing that we could still have an India experience, the class leapt onto the idea.”

“The senior class at Mount Madonna was excited more than ever to hear new perspectives and explore the rich culture that surrounds the very foundation of Mount Madonna as an organization and a school,” observed senior Octavio Moreno. “Being presented with new challenges further highlights the importance of connection and search for meaning that Mount Madonna has offered students year after year. It has also shown us that it is a choice to show up and learn, and not something out of our control.”

The MMS seniors interviewed Kamla Bhasin, Indian developmental feminist, activist, poet, author, and social scientist; Dr. Kshama Metre, a rural development leader and pediatrician, who leads the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD); students and staff of the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society and school in Uttar Pradesh, India. Pardada Pardadi is a nonprofit organization, and its members work towards the educational, economic and social empowerment of girls and women.

On the final day of their “journey,” MMS students connected with students their age at the Sri Ram Ashram, the orphanage and school sponsored by an affiliate of Mount Madonna School. They had great fun speaking and learning about each other’s lives, and quickly became good friends. The final act was to interview Radha Sharan, who grew up at Sri Ram Ashram and is now completing her masters in law. The students interviewed Radha on her master’s thesis on “Building Legislative Framework for Recognition of LBGTQIQ+ Rights.”

MMS students did a thoughtful job of capturing their experience through writing for the trip blog, as you can see from the following excerpted reflections. Visit india.mountmadonnaschool.org to read their complete blog.

“It was truly a privilege to have a deep conversation with feminist Kamla Bhasin,” reflected student Ronan Lee. “During the interview she urged the concept of love, and how it must be something we bring into our lives. She said, ‘To root out the seeds of hate, we must sow the seeds of love.’…With love we can build the new normal, and we can minimize our human made inequalities. The last thought she left us with was, ‘With love, on love, for love, we strive, we thrive, we survive’.”

“Dr. Kshama Metre is a down to earth person and very concise with her language,” commented senior student Kahlan Tervalon. “One of the things she said that stuck out to me the most was, ‘If you only have one stick in the broom, you can’t sweep.’ Not only was this an excellent metaphor for the dangers of isolation and the necessity of contact, it also put them in concrete terms. It gave an example of what isolation does. Around this quote she talked about how society is built on human connection and how when that connection is lost, society starts to crumble. This response was related to how women in India are often isolated by their housework and start to see themselves as lesser. She talked about how men who work the same amount as women do better because they work in a social environment.”

“I found it fascinating that Kamla Bhasin found the source of many of society’s problems to be property,” commented student Ami Bharghavan. ‘It was also fascinating that she connected more educated countries with higher degrees of gender inequality, because with greater wealth comes a greater need to control the wealth. ‘Richer people are more patriarchal,’ she told us. She talked about how more indigenous people, with less property, have more freedom. Why talk about property and gender? Kamla said that you can’t fight gender inequality without fighting capitalism.”

Classmate Kira Kaplan said Dr. Metre’s message of finding deep happiness through a life of service strongly resonated with her – and indeed, is a perspective inherent to Mount Madonna School’s mission, as well.

“While some believe material or experience brings the most joy, Dr. Metre told us, ‘The joy of helping is incomparable to any other happiness we get in life,’ shared Kaplan. “She went on to describe the numerous benefits and joy that comes from a life of service. When we help other people – not for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of others – it becomes addicting. She said, ‘When we bring out our good qualities, we see how good we feel.’…If we all were to take even a fraction of the energy we spend thinking about ourselves and directed it to someone else, the world would be a much better place.”

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Contact: leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believes a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.