In the spring of 2013, Dr. Jen Merritt, Director of Mentoring at the U.Va. Women’s Center, was invited by Sr. Abhilasha, Principal of the Notre Dame Community College in Tamil Nadu, India to teach English to girls in India between the ages of 14 and 19 who have been unable to complete formal secondary schooling due to circumstances ranging from the impact of the 2006 Tsunami to poverty to other forms of family hardship. Part of Dr. Merritt’s short-term project was to pilot a Touchstones program to build English literacy, collaboration, and community among the women students in the rural fishing village Vaniyakudy, located in the southern province of Tamil Nadu. Seven years after the devastating tsunami, the village and the region are still recovering from the disaster.

Dr. Merritt wrote her dissertation on building literacy and community among the incarcerated in Albemarle County Jail in Charlottesville, VA.

Touchstones bannerShe was particularly interested in the development of critical thinking skills in the context of increasing English proficiency for this target group. Merritt also used an approach to alternative education that she had developed in the Carroll-Cleveland Philosophers’ Program that incorporates art and service-learning. The combined methods “built language skills while exposing students to lessons involving creative problem solving, the identification of abstract imagery, and human rights exploration and analysis.”

Dr. Merritt reports that her project at the all-girls community college in southern India yielded promising outcomes, including greater ease of speaking in a group setting and increased comfort in working collaboratively.

Dr. Merritt has been invited back to continue the work that she started in Tamil Nadu this year, and she hopes to bring University students with her.  She is already working on a proposal for additional pilots in the region. These new projects will be part of a proposed India study abroad course coordinated through the Women’s Center.