Keegan fellows draw inspiration from home

Over school vacation, The Marina Keegan ’08 Summer Fellowship reached Nepalese girls and the local autistic community, thanks to the projects of Maia Pandey and Jayanth Uppaluri (both ’20), respectively.

The Keegan Fellowship, established in 2013 to honor the late alumna, grants Upper School (US) students up to $2,500 to pursue artistic and activist ventures. Both Jayanth and Maia’s projects involved raising awareness. 

Inspired by his autistic brother, Jayanth used a budget of $500 for travel across New England to create a documentary about autism. 

“So many people my age know nothing about autism, and I felt like it was my duty to try to spread the word,” Jayanth said.

The autistic community was eager to get involved, he added. 

“I sent out an initial email to a group of parents of children with autism, and within an hour I had 10 responses,” he said. “These parents saw that what I was doing was important and were anxious and excited to help me.”

In many of his interviews, Jayanth said, parents discussed the same themes. 

“They all said that they feel modern society has shunned them and their children for having special needs, and they have no one to turn to besides their families and teachers,” he said. “I heard the same types of stories time and time again, which was a little unexpected for me.”

Jayanth said that while overall the project went seamlessly, scheduling was sometimes an obstacle: the main community that Jayanth communicated with was a boarding school, The New England Center for Children, and so many of the parents who replied to his inquiries lived outside of Boston, in New York and New Jersey.

The gratitude Jayanth received made the project extremely rewarding, he said.

“After every interview I conducted, people took time to thank me genuinely and were so grateful that I was trying to increase awareness for something that is not talked about very often,” Jayanth said. “One parent even baked me cookies.”

Jayanth’s work is not quite over. Jayanth said he still has to interview school community members and put the whole film together, which could take anywhere from five months to a year. 

“It’s a long process, but I’m willing to stick with it because I know this is an important cause,” he said.

Maia spent July and August in Nepal, developing content for a book about menstruation for school children in Nepali villages. She used her $650 budget to hire an artist and a translator and to publish the book, eventually printing 830 copies—800 in Nepali and 30 in English.

After arriving in Nepal with her family, who is originally from Nepal, Maia consulted with her contacts at the Himalayan Children’s Charities as well as at other local non-profits. The consultation resulted in her choice to modify her original vision of discouraging the Nepalese practice of exiling women from the house during their period, Maia said. 

“Since students themselves often don’t have the power to change deeply rooted cultural norms in their villages, I decided to focus on how most girls in rural parts of Nepal drop out of school once they get their periods,” she said. “On a practical level, girls don’t know how to manage their periods, and many schools lack the facilities needed to stay clean. Culturally, there is a stigma of shame, and girls fear being bullied by classmates.”

 Maia added that when she visited a Nepalese school and asked the students whether they thought girls should come to school during their period, about half the group, both girls and boys, said no. She elaborated that the dropout rate is especially alarming since it increases the risk of girls entering child trafficking. Considering the seriousness of the potential problem, Maia planned and wrote for a few weeks before she found a balance between an engaging story and an informational booklet, she said. 

“At first I wanted the story to be a lot longer and include more characters, but I realized the most important thing was to make it short and understandable so the final product was as effective as possible,” she said.

In addition to reworking the goals of the story, Maia faced challenges translating the book from English into Nepali. Although she speaks the language fluently, her ability to write and read the language is not as strong, she said.

“I sat down with a school teacher and had to retell the whole story out loud in order for it to make sense in Nepali,” Maia said. “I hadn’t realized there would be such a communication gap.”

Since a lot of time went into reinventing the story line, there was a rush to finish on time, Maia said.

“It was really nerve-wracking because I was learning new things every day that I wanted to incorporate, such as how many girls in extremely remote villages don’t have undergarments, let alone clean cloth pads, and illustrations had to be done super quickly.”

Before leaving Nepal, Maia had the opportunity to see her work in action when she distributed her book to students in a local school and ran a half-day workshop on menstruation hygiene. 

“It was really gratifying to finally see the book in the hands of students after months of development,” she said. “They seemed eager to read it and even used the speech bubbles on each page to play different roles and act out small scenes.”

Maia hopes to receive feedback throughout the year since she included her contact information inside the book, she said.

“I’d definitely be interested in making a revised version next year to improve the content after seeing what the flaws are and hearing responses from more kids,” she said.

Future Keegan fellows would be wise to go into their projects with an idea for a concrete final product, she added.

“Three months is a long timeline,” Maia said. “Make sure you have a good goal to work toward that you feel passionate about.” 

Jayanth stressed the importance of pushing past obstacles along the way.

“Keep chugging through, and do your best to make your work count.”

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