Women Who Empower: Rubina Philip and Pooja Manda

Author: Mary Hendriksen

Women Who Empower Header

Women who Empower, Inspire, and Strive for Inclusivity: Rubina Philip and Pooja Manda, Notre Dame’s Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child, Telangana, India

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2024, Notre Dame International continues its series of stories on women who, by their example of empowering and inspiring others, live out Notre Dame‘s mission to be a force for good in the world. See more of the series here.

This year, we feature two women who lead efforts to educate children from some of the most marginalized communities in the state of Telangana, in south-central India.

Rubina Philip
Rubina Philip
Pooja Mandha
Pooja Manda

They are Rubina Philip, associate director, Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child (GC-DWC) in India, part of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives; and Pooja Manda, field training coordinator for the GC-DWC.

Philip and Manda are members of a nine-member team implementing Project Sampoorna within government-run, residential schools—450 schools, serving more than 280,000 children—from 5th grade through the higher secondary level.

The first program of its kind in India, the philosophy of the Project is that education can be successful only if it considers the whole child, the complete child. (The word “sampoorna” means “whole” or “complete” in Sanskrit.) That translates into academics embedded within a safe, peaceful, friendly, and inclusive school culture. It is a culture in which the nutritional and psychosocial needs of students are prioritized so they can learn, and in which not only do students feel safe and heard, they are encouraged to be collaborative, empathetic, and kind to one another.

That is their goal, that is their commitment, and that is their passion.

Rubina Philip, the ecosystem of Project Sampoorna, and how the pandemic affected already vulnerable children in the state of Telangana

“The ecosystem in which we work,” explains Philip, “is one of residential schools responsible for children from families historically and financially so marginalized and impoverished that their physical health is likely to be precarious—anemia and faltered linear growth are, sadly, so common that they are frequently the norm.

“And, for so many of these vulnerable children,” she continues, “their emotional wellbeing is also likely to be precarious. For thousands of children, many of them first-generation learners, their already-fragile wellbeing was battered even more by the pandemic.”

The entire system of residential schools in Telangana is administered by the Telangana Social/Tribal Welfare Residential Education Institution Society (the “Society”).

When all schools were closed in 2020 for nearly two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, children sent home frequently became orphans or were left with only one parent. Many boys were forced to enter the labor force; many girls were married off; and both boys and girls lost virtually all opportunity for learning.

“When students came back after the lengthy school closures,” Rubina continues, “the challenge was the immense learning gap and the readjustment to dormitory living along with the emotional turmoil the children had faced over the last two years. Administrators were constantly worried about the increased reports of self-harm and attempts to self-harm, extremely disruptive violent behavior–like bullying and vandalism–and addiction to substances and mobile phones. Project leaders knew of suicides, attempts at suicides, and experiences of abuse at home. Given the sheer number of students (each school has around 600 students) and the fact that such a crisis was unprecedented, it was clear that, on their own, teachers were not equipped to handle such a large crisis.”

Enter Project Sampoorna, with its task to be the Society’s knowledge partner in the sphere of social and mental wellbeing.

Project Sampoorna

It was—and remains—a critical point in time.

“So much was lost in the pandemic,” Rubina says, “ when, already, there was so much work to do.”

Philip came to Project Sampoorna with extensive experience in children’s and women’s issues in India, particularly with survivors of violence as a result of trafficking and child marriage. She holds a postgraduate degree in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, with her bachelor's degree in psychology, political science, and English literature.

As associate director of the Project, Philip is responsible for leading and managing a team of eight people based in Hyderabad, Telangana. She is the main point of contact with the Society, ensuring that Project Sampoorna is aligned with their needs and that the entire process is collaborative.

The current program she and the team have created is called the Safe and Inclusive Schools initiative.

It was piloted in 16 schools the last academic year and found great success and acceptance of the program. The Society asked Project leaders to scale it up. It is now currently being implemented in 61 of the system’s schools, with the goal of eventually scaling up to the entire system.

The Safe and Inclusive Schools initiative reinforces high expectations and exemplary behavior

The “We Succeed Together” agreement students and teachers enter into under the umbrella program Safe and Inclusive Schools initiative reinforces the high expectations and exemplary behavior the Society itself encourages.

Some of the Society’s aspirations for students are:

I shall be the leader wherever I am.

I shall always think big and aim high.

I shall never fear the unknown.

I shall never give up.

The Safe and Inclusive Schools initiative meshes with those aspirations and also goes beyond them by encouraging students to cooperate with one another, build confidence in their relationships with classmates and teachers, and feel a sense of belonging in their school community—all with the ultimate goal of positive mental health and wellness.

As the Project Sampoorna team builds out expectations—for both students and teachers—they use the strategies of thematic assemblies, cooperative games, skits, blob trees, and circle time to best illustrate the program’s goals.

For example, in circle time, teachers might ask students to reflect on “What is the one habit you would like to change in yourself?” or “What is the quality you like most in the friend sitting next to you?”

Thematic assemblies are held—on problems like bullying—with skits performed at times by teachers, and at other times by students, to teach appropriate behavior.

Then, students might gather to answer such questions as: “Have you been bullied? Why is it wrong? What should you do when it happens to you?”

The goal is for the Telangana residential schools, and Indian society as a whole, to become more inclusive, safe, supportive, and fair for all students.

Pooja Manda and the dramatic shift in culture at the heart of Project Sampoorna

Project Sampoorna

It is Pooja Manda on the Project Sampoorna team who works with teachers to implement the Safe and Inclusive Schools initiative program in the Society’s schools.

Manda brings a unique perspective to the Sampoorna Project, having graduated herself from one of India’s social welfare residential schools. Before entering that school, at age 11, she left her own home in a rural village to attend primary school 100 kilometers away in her grandparents’ city.

“My parents believed in me,” she says. “‘Education is the key’ was what they knew to be true and wanted for me.”

Manda went on to earn a master’s degree in development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore and then was the first in her family to become an educator. Before joining the Project Sampoorna team, she worked in the rural development sector, as a project coordinator of a National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development program, directing efforts in 14 tribal hamlets to conserve and manage natural resources as well as to increase the capacity of farmers by linking them to banking and credit facilities.

With her own experience in the residential schools, Manda is able to explain the dramatic change Project Sampoorna aims to effect in the state of Telangana.

Project Sampoorna

“In my years of schooling, there was often profound distance and, sadly, even disrespect for the children by the teachers. Children from these impoverished communities who study in these schools were not seen as worthy of receiving quality education. The perception was that all the efforts towards us were futile because we were not capable of change or any kind of progress.”

Now, in her role as trainer, Manda’s goal is to change the environment of the classroom she herself experienced. Every day, she works to guide the schools' teachers to become invested in their students’ emotional and psychological health. Throughout, they focus on such 21st-century core skills as problem solving, innovation, collaboration, leadership, and communication.

“It is a simple philosophy,” Manda says, “based on the belief that students will respond well to school-wide norms that are successfully communicated, upheld, and exemplified by school staff. The philosophy is implemented in every corner of the school—from the principal’s office to the house parents in the dormitories, and, of course, in the classroom by teachers. We are seeing evidence that We Succeed Together is proving to be an excellent tool for creating safe and inclusive learning environments, which we know to be critical to the success of all students.”

About the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child

The Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child (GC-DWC) is a university center that collaborates with researchers and practitioners to ensure the wellbeing—physical, emotional, social, and cognitive—of children and adolescents in low-resource and conflict-affected settings. Two of the GC-DWC’s flagship programs are in Haiti and India, but its work extends into 23 other countries, including Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Uzbekistan.

Since its inception in 2019, the GC-DWC has grown to include 38 faculty and staff. Its director is Professor Neil Boothby, an internationally recognized expert and advocate for children affected by war, displacement, and poverty who came to Notre Dame from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The Center’s associate director is Hannah Chandler. She provides project coordination, research development, and strategic direction for the Center’s multiple country projects.

Every country and community in which the GC-DWC creates and implements programs is unique; yet, the starting point is the same: creating pathways out of adversity for the world’s most vulnerable children. The key: using evidence-based innovations to develop effective whole-child development approaches to advance the academic achievement of the children, and—critically—create safe, supportive, and equitable family, school, and community environments in which they can thrive.

The intersection between Notre Dame International and the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child

Dhiraj Mehra, director for initiatives, Notre Dame Mumbai, sees his role within Notre Dame International as a “catalyst.” And a catalyst he is.

When Neil Boothby, professor and director of the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child, contacted him initially in August 2020, the request was for advice on creating a budget for a proposed project in India. Mehra’s role expanded quickly. He made connections with key stakeholders, helped envision the project, assisted with the hiring process, and worked with GC-DWC staff to launch the initiative. He is now consulting with its educators on plans to replicate the project elsewhere in India.

Nearly four years after that first phone call, Mehra remains as passionate about the program as the Project Sampoorna team.

“This is something India needs” he asserts. “Historically, the sole focus of education in our country has been on academics—with ‘success’ tied to endpoint examinations, rankings, and admission to elite institutions. With Project Sampoorna, we are all learning—myself included—that there are other metrics, other points of view. This improves the quality of life for us all by revealing the complexity of each human being.”

Learn more about the work of Philip and Manda at The Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child and the work of Notre Dame Mumbai here.