Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sigur Center Grant for Field Research Summer 2012: Girls' Education in Rural India

As I begin the new semester at GW, I feel very grateful for the opportunity to do research this past summer and also excited to share my experiences with friends, family, and classmates. I returned last week after spending approximately six weeks in Karnataka, India, studying non-formal education and its impacts on girls, as well as one week in Sri Lanka working with Professor James Williams on a research project on the higher education system.

Truthfully, it’s difficult to summarize what took place this summer and how it has impacted me. This was my first time collecting data in an international setting, and it was definitely a learning experience. While many of these may seem obvious, I wanted to share some of my ‘lessons learned’, in the hope that they may help future students new to the international research world.

1. Arrange a homestay

The majority of my time in India was spent in the home of my husband’s cousin and her family. Although we had never met prior to my arrival in India, they graciously welcomed me into their lives, and without their assistance and hospitality, my experience in India would have been completely different. Beyond the introduction to the culture and the language, my homestay also provided me with the unexpected opportunity to further my knowledge on the Indian higher education system. The father of the family is a French professor at the University of Mysore, and he helped arrange several meetings with his colleagues working in my subject area, who shared a wealth of information on gender issues and the Indian education system. In addition, the family’s two sons, aged 18 and 20, are currently pursuing medical studies, and I was able to witness the university admissions process for the younger son, which differs greatly from the US. While a homestay with extended family may not be possible for every project, the benefits of living with a local family are immense, and I will definitely do my best to arrange this in the future, whenever possible.

2. Be flexible

This was perhaps the greatest lesson gained from this experience. I am accustomed to conducting research in relatively controlled environments within the US but quickly realized that I must be open to unexpected events during data collection in India. Despite my best efforts to conduct interviews in private locations away from distractions, several of the participants had to simultaneously entertain their children during the interviews, and, due to the multi-generational living arrangements, family members would interrupt the interviews to offer snacks or to just generally see what was happening. Similarly, there were numerous power outages, water shortages, and incidents of peeping toms complete with the arrival of the police, all during my data collection. This is normal life for the participants, and I had to adjust to these circumstances while simultaneously taking steps to preserve the validity and reliability of the study.

3. Connections are vital

My study relied heavily on building trust with school administrators, teachers, and former students. By contacting many of the non-formal education providers in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu states, I gained access to a network of individuals who helped me identify the best programs for my study. The programs that are included in my study agreed to allow me to conduct my research primarily because I had been in contact with their colleagues who could speak to my credibility. As a lone researcher out in the field, this was essential, as my study involved a relatively large time commitment on the part of the program, as well as interacting with the students which opened the program up to possible liability. Similarly, snowball sampling proved to be the most effective way of recruiting former students, as participants could contact their former classmates and create connections that would have been impossible on my own.

4. Be prepared to have tea, lots of tea

Relationships are built over tea in India. The custom of taking tea and discussing seemingly off-topic subjects is a way of building rapport with participants and their families, so it is important to account for this additional time when planning the research schedule. After all, as the IRB education coordinator joked, “How would you feel if someone from India came to your door, wanting to hear all about your life and your experiences in the Jackson High School class of 2002?”A cup of tea with my family is the least that I would expect in that circumstance.

5. Understand that professional services may come at Western prices, but it may be worth it

Somewhat foolishly, I assumed that I would be able to secure an interpreter and translator for lower rates than one would find in the US, given the cost of living in India. However, these professional services come at a premium. For example, in Bangalore, seven hours of interpretation services will cost approximately $100USD. I would recommend going this route, however, as it will save a large amount of time and energy in the end. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way.

In addition, rickshaws seemed to be the best mode of transportation when I arrived. Of course, my ride through the Indian countryside in a rickshaw (made for a driver and 2-3 passengers) with 17 other people and a baby goat IS one of my favorite memories of my trip, despite getting stuck in a sewage puddle and having to push our way out. However, locating a new driver each day contributed to numerous language issues, as well as a lot of time spent arguing over the exorbitant fees the drivers charge foreigners. There are very limited street names in rural Karnataka, so finding the participants’ homes was quite an adventure and, at times, possibly a bit unsafe for a female traveling alone. In retrospect, hiring one rickshaw driver or a car and driver for the duration of my stay would probably have been a better option.

These lessons and many other gained from this experience are invaluable and have definitely helped me become a better researcher. Thank you again to the Sigur Center for your support of my trip to India and Sri Lanka, and I look forward to sharing my results with the wider GW and Asian studies community in the coming months!

Nora Shetty
M.A. International Education, 2013
Sigur Center 2012 Field Research Fellow
Karnataka, India

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