SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Teaching a low-income child in India to speak English can allow a youngster to participate in the formal economy and contribute to India’s rapidly-growing economy, said Indian American entrepreneur Deepak Chopra, founder of the Freedom English Academy.
In an interview here May 23, Chopra and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Prem Talreja, who serves as FEA’s development director, discussed the power of English as a tool to transform the lives of low-income children. The non-profit organization, started eight years ago by Chopra, has navigated more than 120,000 youth — low-income children living in bustees in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh — through its one-year program.
FEA — largely self-funded by Chopra thus far — currently has 120 branches, each within a 15-20 minute walk from a low-income neighborhood. The minimum age to enter the training is 15; many of the program’s participants are in their early 20s. Students attend classes for 100 minutes, six days a week, and hone their English skills. The program also offers training in the soft skills necessary to get and retain a good-paying job, such as communication and collaborative skills, perseverance, and ethics.
A large portion of the program is devoted to building self-confidence and self-esteem. “It’s sad that 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old kids will not open their mouths and even ask a question when they come into the program,” Chopra told India-West.
“But nine, ten months later you can’t get them to shut up. Everybody has so much to say,” he noted with a laugh.
The students also participate together in ‘Massive Online Training Courses’ — MOOCS — and collectively learn from curriculum developed by the Khan Academy and other online sources.
MOOCS generally have a 97 percent failure rate, said Chopra, noting that the majority of students enrolled in the program do not end up completing the course. “What we're doing is having students undertake these programs in a controlled environment of a classroom where all your peers are doing the same thing,” he told India-West, noting that there’s little room for distraction, and thus a higher rate of success.
“They develop the mindset to be lifelong learners, and the discipline to understand that to learn something you have to stick with it,” said Chopra.
FEA also provides its students with mentors, many of whom reside in the U.S. Talreja himself is a mentor and told India-West about a young woman he had mentored, Brinda, who initially wanted to become an artist. “We (tell our students) look at what you love doing. Look at what you're good at and look at generally where the industry is willing to compensate you for. And then if you find the intersection that's a win win.”
Talreja said he thought to himself that Brinda had chosen a difficult profession from which to make a sustainable income. He mentioned his own passion for photography, which set Brinda on the path to discovering digital photography and finally to pursue a profession in digital animation, a highly lucrative career with a huge demand for animators.
“I can’t wait to see her do it. She’ll be great,” he told India-West enthusiastically.
The roots of the program began when Chopra himself was a youngster. “Growing up in India, you can't escape all the poverty. As a teenager it struck me that this is really a human tragedy that people lead such diminished lives and I just wanted to do something about it.”
“As I grew older that just stayed with me; the poverty never went away and I was exposed to it. I felt deeply about it and knew that it would be what I wanted to do with my time and my creativity,” said Chopra.
“By learning English and without learning anything else, incomes go up by about anywhere from 25 to 40 percent,” Talreja explained to India-West. “English is very big part of success in the in the world,” he added, noting that many of India’s children are left behind because English is not taught well in schools.
“If you don't know English, you are really relegated to manual jobs: jobs you can do with your hands because Hindi is not that spoken in the business world. But the moment you learn English you open yourself up into careers that were completely left behind for you. And if you get into those careers, the economics of that is an entirely different level.”
Indian Americans can get involved with FEA in three ways: becoming a mentor, a time commitment of one hour a month for five months; volunteering with the organization, or donating to the 501 (c) 3 charity via https://feaindia.org/donate/. A contribution of $200 supports one student for the entire year.
Chopra said he is looking to scale up the program to other regions by opening a new branch each month; 27,000 students are currently enrolled.
“There are literally tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of students that would love for the program to be scaled up, but it's really a question of does a community care? We can only grow faster if there are others out in the world who care about this,” he said.
Watch the interview on India-West’s YouTube channel here: