While many of his classmates are searching for jobs or starting companies to turn a profit, Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) graduate student Sohan Ashley Fernandes G’11 has started the Fivefold Path Foundation School, a non-profit foundation and school with his cousin, Sarvajit Paranjpe, to provide low-cost, quality education to children in rural India.
“We’ve thought about doing this for a really long time, but never had the right motivation and drive to start off,” Fernandes said, “but when I went home in January, we thought we had the right kind of experience, extra knowledge and we knew we had to start as soon as possible.”
Fernandes does not just hope to educate youngsters, but sees the school he and his cousin are building 300 miles north of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra as a way to combat many other social ills present in the area his family has worked with for more than two decades. Currently, he says the area faces high suicide rates, as well as problems with child matrimony. He hopes that through educating the children, and the family by proxy, he can address issues of child matrimony and the high suicide rate, but also help the community change its agricultural practices to be more successful.
“We want to use education at the forefront to confront those issues,” said Fernandes. “In the future we want to set up resources and environments to set up green energy and organic farming, and use the school as a model to promote the work we are doing.”
Fernandes, who finishes up his master’s degree in information management from the iSchool this July, is currently in the process of getting state approval for the school, as well as recruiting students from the impoverished region to attend the school, though he estimates they’ve already signed up 30-35 students for the first year.
The average cost of attending school for a year is the equivalent of $200, though Fernandes hopes to charge his students only $160, which can make a big difference in whether or not a family can send their child to school.
“Its affordable, compared to other schools,” Fernandes said, “but we want to bring it down to less than $100 per year in the next three years, hopefully by soliciting donations and setting up self-sustainable business practices. If you think about it, right now if I put down $1600, I can then send a child to school for almost ten years.”
The philosophy of the school and foundation Fernandes and Paranjpe are working to develop is based on the tenets of the Fivefold Path, a set of nondenominational life guidelines found in what Fernandes refers to as ancient science.
“I’m Catholic and my cousin is Hindu,” said Fernandes “The principles are not tied to any one religion. Their purpose is to make you a better person, no matter your religion.”
An aspect of the Fivefold Path philosophy is tied to environmental living, so the facility they are building will be constructed in a way that uses the natural resources—wind to circulate air, a well as a water resource, and shade to keep the rooms cool—effectively to reduce reliance on water transport and electric cooling. The two have contracted the architecture firm Whitespace, who is working pro bono, to build the school over the course of five years, depending on the number of enrolled students, on his family-owned land. In the mean time, they plan on using the extensive gardens as classrooms.
“My uncle bought the land for agriculture, renewable green energy and organic farming,” said Fernandes. “We’re taking his vision and bringing it through.”
Fernandes hopes to imbibe the students of his school with lessons on more effective farming, but also to create innovation by allowing the students to have more freedom. Though they plan to teach the students the standard alphabet, arithmetic and English in order to prepare students for success outside the community, the emphasis of the curriculum will also be on creative thinking and a more open education.
“I’ve been reading reports on education reform and there’s an idea that innovation in education can be brought about through teachers, and we need teachers who understand that,” Fernandes said, adding that a major obstacle they are facing is finding dedicated teachers. “We want people who will come to be a part of this and not come for six months and then leave. We want someone who is willing to use our school as their sole project.”
Though the challenge is often daunting, Fernandes said that it is imperative that he and his cousin succeed.
“We give the students the guarantee they can stay for ten years,” he said. “If the school fails, it is our responsibility to face each and every child.”