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Meet Priya: ‘I can’t help but ask myself, “why do I deserve a better life than the schoolchildren I left behind in India?”’

An international student at UC SYD Haderslev

32-year-old Priya from India explains how she became an impassioned advocate for social change, and reminisces about meeting the love of her life by chance in the cobbled streets of Ribe.

Priya standing outside smiling
Photo of Priya by Lisbeth Burich

I first came to Denmark in 2010 for my master’s degree in Environment and Resource Management. Denmark is a great place to learn about sustainable energy, and wind power especially. In India, people are mostly concerned with survival, so sustainability is not high on the agenda.

I’m from a city called Kolkata in East India. It is one of the oldest metropolises in India and has a distinctly academic atmosphere. Kolkata has fostered four or five Nobel prize winners, including Mother Theresa! I used to volunteer with her charity when I was a student in Kolkata.

I met my husband in Ribe. In 2013 I was based in Esbjerg because I was hired for a wind energy project with the University of Southern Denmark, but one weekend I was visiting a friend in the nearby town of Ribe. My friend and I were strolling down the beautiful cobbled high street when she bumped into a friend of hers — Niels — who she knew from a local Viking re-enactment group. The three of us got chatting and decided to stop at a coffee shop. Niels and I had an instant connection. From day one, I felt I could talk to him about anything. We married in 2016.

Niels has ruined historical films and TV shows forever. He is a history graduate and total nerd, and so, whenever we are watching something, he likes to point out every historical inaccuracy. For the umpteenth time he’ll say, ‘that’s not how that happened!’ and I’m like, ‘can you just let one thing go?!’.

Working in rural schools in India was a shocking experience for me. In 2016 I won a fellowship with the Azim Premji Foundation in Dhamtari. They offer a training scheme that enables you to go out and educate teachers in the village schools. It might sound strange that I spent two years educating people who were themselves educators, but in these types of schools the teachers have not received adequate training to begin with. For example, some of them taught English even though they hardly knew any English themselves. And that’s just the start of it.

In the village schools there was no awareness of disabilities of any kind. After 30 days of observation in a fourth-grade class, I found out that this kid who never listened to the teacher was actually deaf — and in his four years of schooling no one had noticed. In another class, there was a kid with Down’s Syndrome, whom the teachers said was simply ‘crazy’ — they did not know that he had a condition.

The hardest part of the experience, though, was the lack of empathy on the part of the teachers. The ancient ‘caste’ system, which divides people into social classes determined by birth, still serves as a form of discrimination in many places throughout India. One of my colleagues told me that, at her school, the teacher put out two jugs of water — the kids from the higher castes could drink from one jug, and the lower caste kids must drink from the other one. Now and again, the teacher would offer her own water bottle to one of the students, but before offering she would check the students’ surname [because last names are an indication of what caste a person belongs to.]

Education is at the core of social change. If you want to fix a society, the education system is a good place to start. My experience with the Azim Premji Foundation taught me that — and inspired me to become a teacher myself.

I love the cold, the wind and the rain in Denmark because it reminds me I am not in India, haha! Indian summers are way too hot for me — temperatures can soar to 45 degrees Celsius. Back in the village schools, I would turn up to lessons draped in black cloth from head to toe, with only my eyes visible, hijab-style. Seeing my outfit, the teachers would assume I was a Muslim. But really, I was only concerned with not dying of heat-stroke! Talking to Niels on the phone, he would complain about the rain and the cold back in Denmark. It sounded like heaven to me.

I knew beforehand that Europeans are meant to be quite reserved but experiencing it first-hand was another matter. I used to rent a basement apartment in Esbjerg from a landlord who lived in the same building but on the upper floors of the house. Every time there was an Indian festival on, I would cook and bring some Indian treats to him and his family. But my efforts to make friends with them didn’t really work out. They never even invited me to a cup of coffee! It was a little disappointing. In India I would have had the complete opposite problem. There, your neighbours are all up in your business. Even though I come from a megacity, in my neighbourhood, everybody knows everything about everybody! Having grown up in that sort of environment, living in Denmark took some adjusting.

It’s easier now. I have more Danish friends and my social network has grown a lot over the years that I have lived here. Of course, meeting my husband has opened a lot of doors for me socially. I don’t miss my family as much as I used to, and that’s because I have gained a family here. Niels’ parents treat me as if I were their own daughter and I love that.

My future is in Denmark, but I don’t want to turn my back on India. After spending two years in small Indian communities and building a relationship with the people there, moving back to Denmark felt a bit like betrayal. I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘why do I deserve a better life than these kids I am leaving behind?’

I love drawing and painting. There was this artist living in my building when I was doing my fellowship in Dhamtari. She gave me private lessons, teaching me how to blend colours and how to achieve different shades. I love painting with watercolour because I find the water is very flexible. I make postcards, bookmarks and various other items which I sell at the Christmas market in Horsens. All the profits go towards building libraries in Dhamtari. It’s a nice way for me to give back.

Teacher Education

Read more about how you can accomplish an international BA in Education in a wide variety of subjects.