Why we felt she needed to be included in this list: Ashweetha Shetty founded The Bodhi Tree Foundation, a nonprofit supporting youth in rural parts of India to pursue their education and/or to prepare for the workforce by offering professional development training, life skills programs and fellowships.
With 600 million youth under 21 in India, and one out of three young graduates facing unemployment, the country is facing a problem that needs immediate action. Rates of unemployment are even lower in rural areas and one reason is that many of the youth are first-generation graduates with limited resources, and without experience and support in developing additional skills required for the competitive workforce.
Fortunately, there are passionate people like Ashweetha Shetty, founder of The Bodhi Tree Foundation, working to make positive change. The nonprofit organization, founded in 2014, focuses on supporting youth in rural parts of India to pursue their education and/or to prepare for the workforce by offering professional development training, life skills programs and fellowships.
All of us are born into a reality that we blindly accept — until something awakens us and a new world opens up.Acumen
Led by Shetty and her team of three, BTF reaches out to approximately 2,400 rural graduates in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu and continues to grow. But her reach doesn’t stop there. She shared her personal story in a TED Talk that has accumulated almost two million views in less than two years. In the 10-minute talk, Shetty shares her inspiring story of how education helped her rewrite her life and encourages others to bravely break any social norms that may be stopping them from reaching their potential.
How exactly did education help Shetty rewrite her life and what social norms did she break? Born into a poor family of hard-working beedi (like a cigarette) rollers in Mukkudal, a small village in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, Shetty, from a young age, identified as a poor, village girl and was conditioned into believing that, that’s how she would remain. At eight years old, she had her first awakening when she taught her illiterate mother how to hold a pen and write her name. That moment was the first time she felt she could be of use to the world.
The world she was growing up in, however, did not necessarily agree that a poor village girl could be of any real use. Troubled by that reality, Shetty often escaped the pressure by immersing herself in the joy of a book. Reading became the way she coped with what she felt was a pending doom; the common fate of many poor, rural, village girls who did not get the opportunity to pursue a higher education and instead got married in their late teenage/early adult years.
One of the books she credits to changing her life was the autobiography of Hellen Keller which she read at the age of 13. Keller’s story helped Shetty understand that the power to change her life and circumstances rested solely in her hands. Inspired by that realization, she began continuously requesting permission from her parents (both illiterate) to pursue an education. Despite facing adversity, she refused to be silenced by her circumstances and accept the “poor, village girl” identity.
Eventually, Shetty convinced her parents to allow her to further her education and became one of the first in her family to graduate college with a diploma in business administration. Still craving more education and opportunity, she continued to think big and aim high. In 2012, she brought herself and her family to new heights by also becoming the first one to leave their village, move to Delhi and complete a one-year-post graduate diploma through the Young India Fellowship. Shetty credits her parents for courageously holding space for her to reach her potential despite her actions being outside of their comfort zone and the traditional societal expectations for her life (which included becoming a beedi roller and an obedient wife).
Describing the year of fellowship as one of the most impactful in her life, Shetty developed a broader understanding of life outside of her village and became determined to return and spread hope to the many she felt were settling for an unfulfilling life. In 2014, upon her return, she rallied a few of her friends and founded The Bodhi Tree Foundation.
Finding my use has allowed me to break free from the identities that society wanted to give me: Rural. Poor. Girl. Finding my use has allowed me to break free from being boxed, caged and bottled. Finding my use has allowed me to find my voice, my self-worth and my freedom.
The foundation’s village engagement initiative sets up learning and development centers in villages. Owned by village graduates and facilitated and supported by BTF trainers, the centers are a hub for learning, ideating, discussing, experimenting and sharing of knowledge and experiences. And the hope is to instill social values and entrepreneurial skills among the graduates so they that can implement local community development projects.
The organization’s residential programs are intensive life skills-based programs that aim to lay the foundation of future rural leaders. In their residential program for girls, for example, special focus is laid on building self-confidence, self-belief and the strength to stand up against the flaws in the society.
The nonprofit conducts sessions at colleges and universities to gauge the interests and challenges faced by the graduates, educate and guide them about various career opportunities available, and support them with skills to boost their employability and confidence. They also offer a mentorship program where they connect rural graduates with a mentor based on their interests and aspirations, and are working on using the program to connect urban youth with their rural counterparts so that they can learn from each other and build a strong youth movement in the country.
In 2016, Shetty was named a changemaker by Global Action on Poverty and in 2018, she was awarded the Chief Minister State Youth Award, in recognition of her outstanding social work, and the Working Women Achievers Award from the Ooruni Foundation. The Bodhi Tree Foundation has evolved to supporting youth across seven villages and 25 community colleges and, led by the passionate voice of Shetty, it’s safe to say it will continue to make positive impact and drive change.
Thumbnail Image Photo Credit: www.theteenagertoday.com
Main Image Photo Credit: www.myindiandream.in