Interview with Reva Dandage, Swaraj University

How did you become interested in alternative education? My own experience with education was not great. I failed in 12th grade in almost every subject. Two of my peers who also failed committed suicide shortly afterwards. This moved me tremendously. I eventually retook and passed the tests for 12th grade and entered university. I was able to do well there, which to me, demonstrated to me that the education system didn’t make sense and that it didn’t understand me. I began looking out for alternatives that acknowledged who people are and their various learning styles and gifts. So I spent the next seven years visiting, learning about, and working with free schools in the U.S., England, and Israel, as both a student and a staff member. The purpose was to learn and to find out what I could start back in India. I understand the system better in India, as I grew up in it, and that was where all my frustration came from, so I felt inspired to create something here.

What is the most exciting aspect of your work? The space at Swaraj excites me because it’s really what our society needs right now: people living out their dreams and not just becoming corporate puppets. I love supporting young people who are trying to live according to their deepest values. It’s also exciting to see that the work that the learners are doing is helping to take care of local communities, all living beings, and the planet. The khojis (seeker-learners) have a place where they can not only follow their own interests, questions and talents, but also can express their emotional needs. We are close like a family. We talk about our relationships, our hurts, our hopes, and our struggles and dilemmas with our families and communities. Healing is a really important part of the learning process. Personally, for the first time, I am in intimate contact with a group of people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds than mine. I know the khojis’ stories much better. It has made me see my privileges in a different, more powerful way and encouraged me to think about how to use these for positive change.

What will the learners do after they ‘graduate’? Will they get a degree from Swaraj University? At Swaraj University, we are challenging the system of superficial degrees and, instead, equipping each khoji to create a portfolio that documents all of their practical learning, reflections and experience over the two years. The mission of Swaraj is to nurture new community leaders, who are ready to face today’s challenges in innovative and compassionate ways. These are unique people doing work in unique fields (even creating new disciplines and careers). Concrete skills, practical knowledge levels, attitudes and networks matter much more than a degree. I feel confident that when the khojis start their own green enterprises, they will be able to regenerate their local cultures, ecologies and economies in some amazing ways!

What has been one of your most powerful learning experiences in Swaraj University? I had an aha! moment when I went on the cycle yatra learning journey with the khojis. After having grown up in upper-middle class India and living in the US for nine years, where everything revolves around one’s economic status, I nervously joined the cycle yatra. We headed out on our bicycles, without the security of money in our pockets and, therefore, without the security of food and shelter. I had heard that people were caring in rural India, but I was still overwhelmed by the experience. Families would make sure our bellies were full before their own. Some could barely afford their own meals and, yet, they still welcomed us into their homes. It made me wonder why people who have financial wealth can’t share it as easily as those who don’t have it. This experience challenged me to think about how can I be more generous and hospitable in my own life.

What do you personally want to learn more about? My current motivation is to learn to live a simpler life. I’m excited to be at Tapovan Ashram, which is 20 km from Udaipur. It has organic farming and medicinal plants, and serves as the current campus for Swaraj University. I want to be closer to the land, learn to experiment with growing my own food and healing myself, and be in better connection with Gaia. I’m am also trying to understand myself better so that I can be more true to my spirit and to the people around me.

Swaraj University is based on the philosophy of self-designed learning and green entrepreneurship. There are no formal qualifications required to join. Ustaads (faculty-mentors) are situated all over the country. For more information, please visit www.swarajuniversity.org or Swaraj University on facebook.