Reflections on a Conversation with Dr. Urvashi Sahni, Founder of the Study Hall Educational Foundation and Education Advocate
By Sarah James and Stephanie Soussloff
Dr. Urvashi Sahni, founder of the Study Hall Educational Foundation, is a powerful leader in the fight for equal access to education in India. Dr. Sahni leads with grace, empathy and energy. Raised by a conservative family, Dr. Sahni was taught from an early age that women should not pursue an education, but even so, Dr. Sahni sought out opportunities to educate herself. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and master’s degree in Philosophy. Later on, Dr. Sahni pursued a Ph.D. in Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Sahni asserts that this academic work shaped her understanding of power and the “meaning of life.”
Horace Mann, a prominent American educational reformer, once stated, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Dr. Sahni similarly believes in the power of education as the greatest tool for social change. She states, “We must educated others so that they might understand their oppression and have the ability to change their reality.”
Dr. Sahni has been a steadfast advocate for equal education, girls’ education and empowering others to create change. While at Berkeley, Dr. Sahni met Randolph Wang, a professor at Princeton at the time, who was also interested in looking at education as a tool to transform lives in India. Together they founded Digital StudyHall, an organization that uses digital media and DVDs to provide more accessible, higher quality education to rural and slum schools.
Soon after, in 1994, Dr. Sahni established the Study Hall Educational Foundation whose broadly defined mission is to provide high quality education to all children in India.
Dr. Sahni believes that any effective social change strategy must be comprehensive and innovative. Dr. Sahni always looks for creative ways to repair the broken education system. She says that she asks herself and her colleagues, “How do you take good innovation and use it in a bad system?” She continues, “The numbers in India are too large, but my taxes go to support this system, so it only makes sense to work to make that system better.”
These days, Dr. Sahni finds herself working on reaching out to the government to advocate for policy changes. She states, “I am not an agitator. [Agitating] doesn’t get you far. I believe in working with the government and working on a larger scale.” However, Dr. Sahni sees power in her work at the individual level as well. She reflects, “I help to show people that there is another way to think, another way to be, another way to let others be.”
With eloquence and wisdom, Dr. Sahni stated in closing, “India is a land of opposites, which makes it all more complicated, but I am patient. It is going to take a long time for [the education system] to be fixed. Maybe it won’t get fixed in my lifetime, but [my work] is about creating a path to a better future for [the children].”
On Friday morning of the symposium, Dr. Sahni participated in a Google Hangout with several other leaders in education who are also working to improve access to and the quality of education globally. Lawrence Chickering and Anjula Tyagi, representatives from Educate Girls Globally, another organization dedicated to girls’ education and empowerment in India, were also present. Dr. Sahni stated she hopes to work with Educate Girls Globally to combine their efforts and resources on future projects.
From our conversation with Dr. Sahni, we were inspired by her compassion, optimism and vision. Dr. Sahni acknowledges that social change may take many years or many decades, but with leaders like Dr. Sahni at the helm, we are confident the world is in good hands.