Vrindavan, a town in north central India, is nine miles from the reputed birthplace of the god Krishna. The area is a magnet for Hindus and other Krishna devotees and boasts more than 5,000 temples that draw thousands of pilgrims each year. At the same time, about a third of Vrindavan's 56,000 residents are poor, many living in the street or in huts ringed by open-air sewage moats.
Last summer, 15 psychology undergraduates from Brigham Young University–Hawaii visited this spiritually rich but materially poor city to evaluate a primary and secondary school that is helping the area's poorest children gain an education that could lead to a better future.
BYU psychology professor Ronald Miller, PhD, led the undergraduate psychology students in collecting and analyzing data for Food for Life Vrindavan, a humanitarian organization that educates and feeds 2,000 of Vrindavan's most destitute children, ages 7 to 17. Miller, who has led similar efforts in other countries, contacted the organization to see whether it was interested in an analysis that would show donors and funders the benefits of their investments. In turn, his students would get free room, board and technical support.
"This arrangement works well for us and for them," says Miller.
For the first six weeks, beginning in mid-June, five BYU–Hawaii students interviewed the school's students, parents and teachers using measures created from a variety of scales, including the General Efficacy Scale, the Child's Hope Scale, the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. They also collected comparison data on impoverished children who did not attend any school and on youngsters who attended government and private schools. In their assessment, they had 398 students, 440 families and 46 teachers.
In mid-July, 10 more BYU students flew to Vrindavan for two weeks to gather a final round of data. Results from the students' 484-page report showed that students from the Food for Life school had similar pass rates on state and national exams to their wealthier private and public school counterparts. Surprisingly, the Food for Life students also reported more hope for their futures and lower levels of anxiety than students from wealthier schools, says Miller.
"We really thought there would be some sort of indication of trauma, given their upbringing," says Miller. "But they may have had these better outcomes because they see how far they've come" materially, physically and in the amount of attention they receive from teachers, for instance. "I think it would fascinating to track the changes in their lives over time."
Meanwhile, the poor children who did not attend school reported far more anxiety than the other groups and much less hope about their abilities and the future.
Seeing the difference that a school like Food for Life can make encouraged many of the BYU–Hawaii students to continue their psychology training, in particular as it pertains to helping the underserved, says BYU student Yoko Tsui. "It helped to confirm that I want to go on to a clinical [psychology] program, so I can help children with similar problems," says Tsui, a native of Hong Kong. "Doing this project has encouraged me to go back home and serve my own people."
The trip also gave the students a chance to sharpen their statistical skills, adds Miller.
"These trips help students to understand that they can use their psychology skills to make a positive and practical difference in the world," he says.
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.