The Education Lottery

I won the lottery of life.

I was born in the U.S. I’ve never personally experienced war or genocide. I was born to two upstanding parents. I always had a roof over my head and never went hungry. I was gifted with intelligence, ambition and curiosity. I’ve always been physically healthy.

As a child, education was always my priority; but it wasn’t a given.

My mom was the only person I knew that went to college. A single mother, she earned a nursing degree when I was 14 years old.

I had two goals as a teenager– getting into my dream university, and figuring out how to pay for it. In April 1988, I cried into an acceptance letter and generous financial aid package from Northwestern University. In four years, my eyes opened to things I didn’t even know existed.

Education changed the course of my life. Ever since, my motto has been “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

As an adult, I fell in love with global travel. Visiting other countries and immersing myself in new cultures, religions, and ways of looking at the world was better than any graduate degree.

I met girls who were born with my same gifts– intelligence, ambition, and curiosity. Education was their priority. For countless reasons, it would not be their reality.

Because education was what I was given, helping others deserving of one was my expectation. Ironically, Northwestern played a role in my doing so.

In 2007, I read an article in my Northwestern magazine about business school alumnus, John Wood. He had recently authored a book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, chronicling his journey from global marketing exec to founding global literacy non-profit Room to Read.

John talked about having won the lottery of life. He noted the headwinds that children, particularly girls, face in getting an education; he also pointed to the returns generated by investments in literacy. As an investment professional, his use of the words “return,” “investment,” “transparency,” and “measurement” had me– it was a business-oriented approach to solving a global social issue.

I found Room to Read’s Literacy and Girls’ Education Programs were led by in-country staff in several developing countries, but their global headquarters was just down the street in San Francisco.

I asked how I could get involved. I read John’s book, ordered multiple copies, and mailed them to friends. I organized a Room to Read site visit and online fundraiser in conjunction with my upcoming vacation to India. I wrote a proposal for Room to Read to be a philanthropic partner to my company.

And in every one of the 10 years that followed, I found new ways to support Room to Read.

Today, Room to Read is a global literacy powerhouse. They’ve impacted 20,000 communities across 10 countries, distributing over 18 million books and publishing 1,300 children’s books in 19 local languages*; 50,000 girls who would not otherwise be in school have benefitted from their Girls’ Education Program.

The Girls’ Education Program focuses on girls in and transitioning to secondary school (6-8th grade). It’s that critical juncture when you begin to see girls dropping out of school. While the program’s initial focus was scholarships, one of Room to Read’s early learnings was that funding a girl’s schooling wasn’t enough. They added life skills classes, mentorship, and family and community engagement– each critical to a girl’s classroom success. Room to Read’s latest challenge is how to best measure and report on the impact of these added services.

Like any good student, Room to Read is constantly testing their hypothesis, constantly refining and learning. As a Room to Read advocate, they bring me into the fold. As they share, I learn. As they achieve, I celebrate.

And the other week, we celebrated…big time!

I joined Room to Read’s 2017 Leadership Trek in Dehradun, a town of 1.5 million people in northern India. It was a rare chance to experience their Literacy and Girls’ Education Programs in action.

The choice of India as a site visit destination was no accident. If you want to improve global literacy, alleviate poverty, and grow economies, you can’t ignore India. It’s home to 35% of the world’s illiterate population. Room to Read has impacted the lives of 12 million children around the world, and 3 million are in India.

On the last day, we celebrated a major milestone– 50,000 girls globally benefitting from Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program!

We spent the day at the Government Girls Inter College school. In the morning, it was small group sessions with students, teachers and parents; in the afternoon, we joined the school and the local community in a global celebration.

Musicians greeted us as we exited our cars and led us to the school gate. A student presented each visitor with a garland of marigolds. We walked a dirt pathway flanked by singing, clapping students and teachers.

It was loud, infectious, and joyous. I’ve never experienced such a welcome. I tried to thank each greeter with my eyes. I tried to take it all in.

I wish I could do it again. I would have walked more slowly.

We hit the classrooms. We joined 6th graders in a life skills class and brainstormed about overcoming obstacles. We enjoyed a roundtable discussion with the school’s female principal and teachers. Finally, we packed into a third classroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor with over 20 women dressed in vibrantly colored saris. They were proud mothers whose daughters attended the school.

In a Q&A, they shared their hopes and dreams for their daughters, and examples of what their daughters had taught them as a result of the Girls’ Education Program.

I asked a question of the group.

“Your daughters are in school, learning new life skills, and growing their confidence and leadership skills. How has that changed the dynamics with her brothers and father? For each of you, has it changed your relationship with your husband?”

I know from my own family experience that female education and newfound skills and confidence change household dynamics. It’s a big part of my childhood story.

Our discussion was moderated and translated by Nini, an inspirational leader and head of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in India. In this safe environment, I knew Nini would ask the question in the most culturally appropriate way.

Nini spoke to the women in Hindi for an extended time; several women replied. I could sense an interesting dynamic, but had no idea what was being said. Nini translated responses from a few women. There were positive and negative stories. But most didn’t feel comfortable answering in front of their peers.

For me, that alone was a different reality. Back home, my female peers are my confidants, sounding board, and fellow warriors. I felt a renewed appreciation for that sisterhood. I wished that feeling for these women.

Afterwards, Nini thanked me for asking the question; apparently, it generated conversation among the women afterward.

In our final small group session, we met with five recent Room to Read Girls’ Education Program graduates. While they were all either pursuing advanced education or gainfully employed, what stood out was their willingness to take risks and forge new paths.

One shared how she went against her family’s wishes and chose to live on her own in the city; she now supports two of her nieces who live with her as they finish school. A second traveled solo to Delhi to interview for a prestigious fellowship; she told her mother after her successful interview.

These are women who seek to better their own lives, but are also forging paths for others. They live the “To whom much is given, much is expected” motto.

I thought about these two groups of women– the mothers and the graduates—from these adjacent sessions. The age difference between the two groups was perhaps 10-15 years. But the stark differences between the two groups left me hopeful.

On that day, with my own eyes and ears, I personally witnessed the change that is happening.

The 50,000 girl milestone is worth celebrating. But what’s really worth celebrating is the exponential power of each future 50,000 girl cohort.

My experience that day made me question my hypothesis.

Yes, change is happening. But I’m now even more hopeful on the timeframe.

Change might happen more quickly than we think.

___________________________

As of November 2017. Room to Read continually updates their direct Impact & Reach on their website, and recently launched the Room to Read Accelerator to extend their impact and reach. Read more about our celebrating milestones in their Literacy and Girls Education Programs in India in November 2017.

For more stories, photos, and videos, please see my travel album 2017 Room to Read Leadership Trek – Dehradun, India.


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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!