When Vedant Seeam ’11 started the nonprofit “Helping Orphans Prosper through Education” (HOPE) almost three years ago, its finances were limited to the $1,100 he had saved up since his arrival at Yale.
This summer, the organization, now called Experimental Learning Initiative (ELI) Africa, will spend about $100,000 to send its second group of student fellows to the African island of Mauritius. Seeam and the other students on ELI Africa’s board of directors expect continued growth: they are in the planning stages of expansion to Tanzania.
ELI Africa’s mission is to involve members of African communities from all walks of life in creating hands-on learning programs for underprivileged youth, Seeam said. The program solicits the help of locals who can continue the American fellows’ efforts after they leave, he added.
“The thing that differentiates ELI Africa is that it’s teaching people how to fish,” said advisory board member Mark Francis, an architect and the associate director of planning for West Campus. “It’s not just providing them fish. It’s working through communities. It’s not trying to recreate programs, but to augment the programs that are already in place.”
The program, which has a managing board of sixteen students and an advisory board that includes Calhoun Master Jonothan Holloway and Diplomat-in-Residence Charles Hill, won a $20,000 grant from the Chase Community Giving Program sponsored by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. last July. It is in the process of finalizing the lease on a building in Mauritius that will become its education center, Head of Fundraising Nick Simmons ’11 said. That building will allow the organization to offer yearlong programs in the future, Simmons said, adding that they have not yet worked out the logistics of expanding beyond summer classes.
Chief Program Officer Alex Peterson DIV ’12 and Seeam said the educational center will help ELI Africa move closer to the goals of organic learning that define it. The fellows will seek locals who can supplement their teaching with experience, and continue the lessons after the Americans go.
Seeam added that ELI Africa will benefit from having its own space instead of operating out of existing schools, where individual teachers were very receptive to the students’ presence, but administrators sometimes felt displaced by the volunteers, he said.
Some of ELI Africa’s efforts directly counteract problems Seeam sees within the school system, he said. For example, teachers in Mauritius typically host after-school group tutoring sessions for which they charge money, turning “school into a business,” Seeam said. ELI Africa’s programs are free, and more hands-on in approach than traditional African schooling.
The lease of the education center follows three years of work on the part of Seeam, who was born and raised in Mauritius, and returned there in the summer of 2009 with two other Yalies to investigate how he could implement his ideas for an educational nonprofit on the island. Seeam took the 2009-’10 school year off to continue fundraising and laying the groundwork for the organization, which sent six Yale undergraduates to Mauritius last summer for its pilot program.
This summer, nine Yalies will travel to Mauritius to create classes that include “leadership through basketball,” “science and music through gardening,” and “physics through soccer.”
Seeam said he has received requests to expand the program to Kenya and Ethiopia, and to open chapters at Harvard and Brown. For the time being, he said he wants to keep the organization a manageable size to ensure that the board and fellows can do the best job possible, but he added that he is not ruling out future growth. For now, Director of Public Relations and Marketing Head Danny Diamond ’11 said he, Seeam and other board members have registered ELI Africa as a non-governmental organization in the East African nation of Tanzania.
“Our short term is in Mauritius,” said Peterson, who volunteered with the Peace Corps before coming to Yale. “In the long term, the sky’s the limit as long as there continues to be need and as long as we can continue to provide the education opportunities we want.”
Seeam said he and other board members are currently researching ways to set up an educational center in Tanzania that would employ the same methods of community involvement used in Mauritius.
Last summer, the six ELI Africa fellows on the island worked hard not to impose themselves and their ideas on a country that none of them had ever visited, Seeam said. Instead, they partnered with local schools to offer programs that supplemented the existing curriculum.
Though they tried to prepare and design methods of instruction before they left, they knew that everything might have to change upon arrival, fellow Victoria Perez ’11 said.
“You get there, you feel ready, and then you get a bunch of curveballs,” said Perez, who had designed a health curriculum for students with fellow student and Yale Community Health Educator Sarah Salomon ’11, who also made the trip.
Perez said they encountered difficulty with the language barrier between English and Mauritians’ native Creole, but that gap actually had its advantages. Since many of the teachers in the four schools in which the fellows volunteered were bilingual, the language barrier ensured that Elis and Mauritians worked together.
Moreover, many of the local children were inspired to learn English to overcome the difference, Seeam said.
“The children really enjoy the company of the fellows and so they want to learn English,” he said. “If we sent fellows who spoke Creole, they wouldn’t have that same motivation.”
Members of the advisory and student boards said ELI Africa’s attempt to deliver a mix of important lessons and fun after-school and weekend activities drew them to the organization.
That combination of goals began with Seeam, who dreamed up the non-profit soon after his arrival at Yale, and whose devotion has driven the project, Simmons said.
“He could really do anything he wanted in life, including making a lot of money, but instead he has this higher calling to give back through education,” Simmons said. “I realized those were his emotions early on and I was impressed by that and drawn to that.”
The area of Mauritius is about 790 square miles. The island has a population of about 1.4 million.
Correction: March 1, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated the area of Mauritius as 790 miles. The correct measurement of area is square miles.