Gilman scholar learns about herself in India

Heather Brekhus

By Sean Park
As a Seattleite, Heather Brekhus had some hiking experience. But walking up and down the Himalayas for seven hours during a study abroad trip tested her more than any Northwest range.

Her guide mentioned toward the end of the hike that they were on the “baby version” of the mountain. Brekhus thought to herself, “If that was the baby, I don’t want to see the mother.”

It would be only one of the many eye-opening moments of turned out to be a trip out of her comfort zone and into a new learning environment.

Heading to India

This past summer, Brekhus, an Educational Studies major at the University of Washington Bothell, was presented with the Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship.

The fellowship is funded by the U.S. Department of State and gives students of limited financial means an opportunity to study or intern abroad. Started in 2001 and named after the late New York Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the program has received more than 100,000 applications, and approximately only one in four are awarded the honor.

Applying for the prestigious fellowship was a personal “mountain” Brekhus climbed, and getting the news she would be a Gilman scholar made her feel as if she’d summitted. With this support, she headed to India as part of the study abroad program called Business India: Indian Society and Organizations in the 21st Century.

The group of 21 students and three faculty traveled through the cities of Agra, Bangalore, Delhi, Dharamsala, Hampi and Kochi. For three weeks, they learned about the features of Indian organizations and society and how they influence each other.

Learning through the real world

Although Brekhus is focused on education, she also has an interest in learning more about business. Her father founded a company called Brekhus Tile & Stone around the time she was born, and she’s always been inspired by his passion and hard work.

Heather Brekhus

The group met with a variety of businesses throughout the course. After these visits, they would discuss the problems the organizations are facing and consider differences and similarities between nonprofits and for-profit companies.

Her professor would ask questions such as, “Knowing what you’ve just learned about this nonprofit, how could you transform this model into a for-profit business?” The students collaborated on thinking strategically and devising solutions, a process Brekhus says she enjoyed.

“One of my future goals is to start a nonprofit related to educating children outside of the classroom,” she said. “Our studies helped me understand the ups and downs of running such an organization and what it would take to accomplish my goal.”

Empowering individuality

The most memorable part of the trip for Brekhus was when the class visited a Parikrma school in Bangalore.

The Parikrma Humanity Foundation, established in 2003, operates four K-10 schools and one junior college (grades 11 and 12) across Bangalore. More than 1,800 children — 52% of whom are girls — are bused in from 99 slum communities and four orphanages to receive free education and three healthy meals a day.

“Parikrma’s mission is to make learning enjoyable for the children, which ties closely to what I am learning at UW Bothell,” Brekhus said. “The faculty at Parikrma intentionally focus on empowering every child to think and feel like an individual instead of just being part of a big class.

“While talking to the children, I could sense this individualism,” she said. “They were excited to be there, to meet us, to share their story and to practice their English on us. Given their circumstances at home, I was really surprised by their enthusiasm and positive attitude.”

Taking it all in

Brekhus saw first-hand that the responsibility of being a teacher isn’t just about class subjects. As she’s learned at UW Bothell, being a good teacher means knowing about students’ experience outside of the classroom, including their nutrition, living conditions and family structure.

“At Parikrma, the founder stressed this, too. I’m going to be very conscious of applying this when I start teaching,” Brekhus said.

Meeting the students and seeing a vast number of people living on the streets also helped her gain a new appreciation of growing up in a first-world country.

For example, she made a decision to never leave food on her plate again. “I don’t want to waste anything,” she said. “First off, it’s disrespectful to throw away something so valuable. Second, every day I saw starving people on the streets begging for food, so how could I look at my full plate and not finish it?

“These experiences hit me hard. Now I have a better realization of the privileges I have taken for granted all these years,” she said.

Coming home

“India was the best destination I could’ve chosen,” said Brekhus. “I knew little about it beforehand, yet now I want to go back after I get settled in to my career.”

Brekhus received an open invitation from the Parikrma school to return and help teach at the institution. It’s an opportunity she won’t pass up.

“Taking the chance to study abroad was a great decision, and I’m glad I went for it,” she said. “Thanks to the Gilman scholarship, I was able to discover a lot about myself and grow in ways that I was not expecting.”

“I took a big step out of my comfort zone, and now I’m going to challenge my students to do the same.”

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