Ashweetha Shetty: Targetting great heights

Ashweetha Shetty of the Bodhi Tree Foundation

TEDxGatewaySalon: Breaking Barriers was held at the National Centre Performing Arts in Mumbai very recently. Reiterating TED’s mission of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’, this year’s TEDxGatewaySalon celebrated a number of women achievers who have catalyzed ideas towards action against the central theme of ‘Breaking Barriers’.

The NCPA was packed to the rafters as TED presented eight extraordinary women risk-takers and innovators who are breaking barriers and pioneering great movements in different walks of life. One of the most inspirational stories is that of a young girl named Ashweetha Shetty. She deserves to reach even greater heights, says RONITA TORCATO, who came away impressed after meeting her and listening to her TEDx talk at the NCPA’s Tata Theatre.

Ashweetha Shetty is a social worker born into an underprivileged community of beedi rollers who toil 12 hours a day to keep body and soul together. Young, highly articulate and deeply committed to the cause of bridging the rural-urban divide and girl empowerment, she has shattered the glass ceiling of social norms imposed by her backward, illiterate community in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district through the power of education, to become the first-generation graduate. At 22, she set up the Bodhi Tree Foundation which now supports over a thousand college graduates to realise their potential by harnessing education, life-skills, and opportunities.

Ashweetha was all of eight when she noticed that her mother used her thumbprints instead of a signature to keep a record of her meagre earnings. “On that day, for some reason, I wanted to teach her how to write her name. She was reluctant at first and said No! With a little bit of perseverance and a lot of effort, she managed to write her name. Her hands trembled, but her face beamed with pride. As I watched her do this, for the first time in my life, I had the feeling: that I could be of some use in this world. That feeling was really special, because in rural India in particular, girls are considered worthless, a liability or a burden. The majority of the population lives in rural India, where women are not expected to speak in front of elders. Only men can.

“If we are considered useful, it is only to cook dishes, keep the house clean, marry and raise children. I was fairly clear from a very early age that no one expected anything from me. I was conditioned to believe that the three identities that defined me — Poor Village Girl — meant that I was expected to live a life of no voice and no choice. These three identities made me despair and think that I should never have been born. Yet, I was. And as I rolled beedis alongside my mother, I would wonder about the future.”

“Helen Keller became my inspiration. I admired her indomitable spirit. I wanted to have a college degree like her, so I fought with my father and family to be sent to college. And I did.”

When Ashweetha was 13, she came across the autobiography of Helen Keller, the deaf-blind American girl who learned to read, write and talk thanks to her courageous teacher Anne Sullivan. Keller was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and became an author, political activist, and lecturer. “Helen became my inspiration. I admired her indomitable spirit. I wanted to have a college degree like her, so I fought with my father and family to be sent to college. And I did.”

In the final year of her studies, Ashweetha applied for a fellowship programme in Delhi. She didn’t have access to a computer and borrowed a junior’s cell phone to submit the application. “After many rounds of interviews over Skype, I got into the fellowship programme with a full scholarship.”

Of the 97 fellows selected that year, Ashweetha was the only rural college graduate. She was a gold medallist through her Bachelors in Business Administration from a college in Tirunelveli, but she recalls feeling alienated, intimidated and judged. Someone called her “Coconut Girl” because she applied a lot of coconut oil to her long, long hair. Some students did not want her to be part of their project teams as they thought she would not be able to contribute much. But others encouraged her and treated her well. “The Fellowship empowered me and honed my speaking and writing skills.”

More importantly, Ashweetha saw a glimpse of a brave new world where girls like her were neither a liability nor a burden but persons of real value and worth.

By the time the Fellowship ended, her life had changed irrevocably. Post the Fellowship, she worked as a community engagement manager at Sugha Vazhvu (Happy Life) Healthcare, which provides primary healthcare in rural India. Her job entailed helping develop health-related content and conducting awareness sessions in schools and colleges about anaemia and cardio-vascular diseases. She still felt something was missing in her life and that she had to do more.

Ashweetha returned to her village to set up the Bodhi Tree Foundation, working with local graduates to empower them with soft-skills training and exposure to opportunities which will help them reach their full potential, change their lives and benefit the community.

The Bodhi Foundation has helped a village girl named Kaviarasi to study at the Ashoka University in Delhi. Kaviarasi is now a trainer at Bodhi and mentored Anitha, who lives in a 10-foot-by-10-foot home with her parents who are farm labourers. Kaviarasi also helped Anitha secure admission into a top university with a full scholarship.

Change does not happen overnight and Ashweetha is well aware of this. “A lot of my work involves helping illiterate families and communities understand why education is important for everyone.”

“I found my own freedom when I realised how I could be useful to society. In being useful, I have found my true calling and my freedom.”

Ashweetha has been recognised for her efforts with an award from the Chief Minister. She also won the Mother Teresa YIF Social Enterprise Scholarship which has helped her sustain her Foundation. Ashweetha dreams of a country where there is no rich-poor, illiterate-educated divide.

She ends her story with the memory of her grandmother. One day, her three-year-old nephew who was playing with a ball, didn’t notice a well and inadvertently fell into it. There was pandemonium as some villagers scurried around looking for a rope, shouting and screaming. “My grandmother did not scream. She jumped into the well and saved my nephew. My grandmother has been my inspiration. In her own way, poor as she was, my grandmother was a free woman. I found my own freedom when I realised how I could be useful to society. In being useful, I have found my true calling and my freedom.”

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Ronita Torcato

Ronita Torcato is a government-accredited journalist, film critic, amateur historian, traveller and social media communicator.