April 14, 2009 — The two metal detectors and X-ray machine at the Taj Mahal Hotel entrance seemed like overkill, but it gave the visiting Americans a sense of security after their trip to Mumbai was postponed in the wake of what has been called India's "26-11."
The Americans — part of the "India As A Global Partner Program" organized jointly by the University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, located at the Curry School of Education — were already mindful that in the original plans, they would have arrived at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai two days after scores of people were taken hostage and 31 were killed by two terrorists at the hotel.
But if they somehow had forgotten, there were plenty of physical reminders. The bullet holes, boarded-up windows in the hotel's Heritage Wing, and the stone memorial in the lobby of the newer section were sobering reminders of their close call.
Nevertheless, after three months of rescheduling and collecting insurance claims, the party of 10 Virginia superintendents and corporate sponsors was determined to complete the 11-day program in India. They had already invested 16 hours in seminars at U.Va. with faculty members from the Darden School of Business, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Curry School of Educaton.
Among the presentations was Curry faculty member Stephanie Van Hover's thought-provoking discussion on how India is addressed in Virginia's Standards of Learning curriculum. Another seminar highlight was the presentation by Edward Luce, the Financial Times' Washington bureau chief and author of "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India." Both "In Spite of the Gods" and "Freedom at Midnight," by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, were assigned readings for the program.
The reception in India was worth the wait as CEOs and employees of six multi-national companies headquartered in Mumbai and Delhi and students, teachers and administrators from four Indian schools showered the group with garlands, gifts and praise for their determination. When group members got off the bus at the Mira Model School in Delhi, where several superintendents had already laid groundwork for establishing international school partnerships, they were greeted by cheering faculty members and students who lined the driveway.
The India As A Global Partner Program was patterned after a Fulbright program for teachers and administrators, sponsored by the Columbia School of International Affairs. The tours, presentations and discussions during the intense in-country schedule in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra were organized to address the program's objectives to help Virginia's education leaders:
• raise their awareness of India as an emerging economic power;
• increase their understanding of India's educational system and how Indian students are being prepared for competition in the global economy; and
• establish partnerships between schools in India and schools in their districts so that Indian and American students improve their cultural understandings and their knowledge of the histories, governments and economies of India and the United States.
The program was funded by 42 Indian and American companies that contributed a total of $148,000 for the seminars and travel. Fourteen superintendents were selected by their peers to represent each of the eight superintendents' regions in Virginia. Five Curry School alumni were among the superintendents selected. They included: Al Armentrout, Wythe County superintendent; Roger Collins, Nelson County superintendent; Elaine Fogliani, Westmoreland County superintendent; Melody Hackney, Charlotte County superintendent; and Fred Morton, Henrico County superintendent. Fellow Curry alumni Thomas Morris, Virginia's secretary of education, and Andy Stamp, associate director of the superintendents' organization, also participated.
A second travel group of 20 members, including Morris, nine superintendents, seven corporate sponsors and three group leaders will leave for India next fall. The first group of 10 members will brief this group and present at the Virginia Association of School Superintendents' May conference. All members are required to share what they learned from their experiences with their students, teachers, school board members and members of their city councils or county boards of supervisors.
One of the key lessons learned by the participants in the first group was that despite its economic success in the 20 years since Rajiv Gandhi championed a vision of India as a world leader in the information technology sector, India's growth has been inhibited by a population explosion, caste system, bureaucratic civil service and government corruption. It is still a nation of many paradoxes – modern and deeply religious; a country of 1.2 billion people with a 7 percent annual growth in its GDP; a nation inhabited by the wealthiest and the poorest people in the world; a highly diverse and politically fragmented country with a strong national identity.
Indians are fond of saying, "Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India." Henrico County superintendent Fred Morton summed it up in his words: "Just when you think you understand the country, you bump into a completely different perspective and way of seeing the world. India is a country filled with marvelous complexities and nuances."
(Note: The author is executive director of the University of Virginia School-University Partnership and associate executive director of the Virginia Association of
School Superintendents, based at U.Va.'s Curry School of Education.)