Hindi and Rural Development: The Education of Language Fellow Avital Datskovsky

Tali Datskovsky Diwali 2013

Avital (left) at a Diwali celebration while participating in the AIIS Hindi language program.

Avital Datskovsky couldn’t get enough of India.

After participating in the 2013-14 academic year AIIS Hindi language program in Jaipur—on a language fellowship funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Group Projects Abroad program—she returned as an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow in 2016-17 to work with Gramin Shiksha Kendra, an education NGO based in Rajasthan.

Avital is now back in Rajasthan, working full time with GSK. In this interview, she reflects on her immersive engagement with Hindi and her passion for education and development.

AIIS: What drove you to pursue Hindi language training with AIIS, and what impact has it had on your career?

AD: The decision to pursue Hindi further through the AIIS language program for a year after college was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. I had studied Hindi for four years in undergrad but living and studying in India—where I had to speak Hindi everyday—really cemented my language skills. It also helped me to realize that I wanted to work in India, so after returning to Chicago and working there for two years I returned to India as an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow.

Studying Hindi at AIIS really helped me prepare for this, as I was in a rural area where English was not often spoken. Having the base that AIIS provided allowed me to better understand the work of Gramin Shiksha Kendra, the NGO I was placed with, and build relationships and friendships with people in the community. I was able to conduct my day-to-day work in Hindi at the NGO, including workshops with students and teachers.

Tali Datskovsky Gramin Shiksha Kendra colleagues

Avital with Gramin Shiksha Kendra colleagues.

After completing the AIF fellowship, I went for an MSc in Development Studies and wrote my dissertation on the area in Rajasthan where I had worked—and was able to use interviews that I had taken on my own in Hindi—as a basis for my dissertation research. I then decided to return to Gramin Shiksha Kendra, where I use my Hindi skills every day.

What is GSK, and what kind of work are you doing for them now?

Gramin Shiksha Kendra is an education NGO based in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, just outside Ranthambore National Park. Their approach is really special.

GSK runs three schools that provide high-quality education to 400 children in 11 villages. They focus on making education enjoyable for children through activity-based learning. The kids are encouraged to ask questions (no rote memorization or lecturing approaches) and there’s a big focus on making sure the children are comfortable with the teachers and see them as mentors rather than authority figures or people to be intimidated by.

GSK’s approach is extremely community oriented: the schools are community run and owned, and teachers are hired locally.

Video: Avital discusses her time as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Gramin Shiksha Kendra, where she worked with students to document local culture and history through art and writing.

I really admire the grassroots nature of GSK. I’m very interested in looking at development from a bottom-up approach, which GSK absolutely does. They scale up through what is called their vistaar (Hindi for expansion) program, which provides support to government schools and trains staff in their activity-based learning approaches and community engagement. Through their schools and vistaar program, GSK has impacted over 10,000 children and more than 70 schools in the district. 

When I was an AIF Clinton fellow with GSK my project was developing curriculum modules to teach the children how to document local culture and history. I conducted workshops where we exploring how to collect and tell stories and local history through art and writing, and we held an exhibit at the end of the year for the community to showcase what the kids had learned.

This time I’m working with GSK on fundraising activities, including grant writing, crowd-funding, and building relationships with the tourist industry to support GSK.

Tali Datskovsky Fatehpur Sikri trip

On a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, the former Mughal capital outside Agra.

Your Hindi language training clearly has practical benefits, as you use it in everyday conversations in work and at home in Rajasthan. What were the particular advantages of traveling to India to study in an immersive environment with AIIS?

If you want to learn an Indian language I think studying in India is one of the most important things you can do. Being in an environment where you have to speak that language is one of the best ways to learn. When you’re in India, you pick up colloquialisms in a way that’s hard to without conversing on a day-to-day basis with people—you habituate to the language just thanks to daily use. 

I’m not particularly savvy at languages (I find them difficult) but going to India to study Hindi made the experience so enjoyable because I was able to learn not just a language, but also, through conversations and friendships with Hindi speakers, learn so much about the areas I was living in.

Just on a personal note, Hindi is very dear to me because I’ve been able to become close to friends that I admire so much in huge part thanks to Hindi.


Learn more about AIIS Language Programs.