By Aparna Ramakrishnan
Swami Vivekananda, the great Hindu pioneer and diplomat to the United States who helped drive the modernization of India, once said, “Arise, awake. Stop not till the goal is reached.” The North South Foundation under Dr. Ratnam Chitturi’s direction has continued Swami Vivekananda’s mission in uniting Indians of many different religions and ethnic backgrounds under a single guiding principle: the importance of education. The North South Foundation is best known to most Indian parents as an organization that sponsors local, state and national competitions in the US for children of Indian descent. Capitalizing on the dedication and pride that the parents here in the US feel in their children’s achievements, NSF, founded in 1989, has achieved astounding success in providing scholarships to promising but underprivileged students in India. NSF has awarded over 3,000 scholarships to students in fields as diverse as engineering, medicine, 3-year polytechnics and the general sciences. There are 17 chapters from which these scholarships are administered covering 13 states of India. NSF is unique in its efforts because it is arguably the single most expansive organization dedicated to promoting education both among its ethnic demographic in the United States as well as in the mother country. The counterpart of the charitable aspect of the Foundation’s work is the competitions NSF has been holding for more than 10 years. Originally jump-started by Dr. Murali Gavini, these contests are held in centers across the US and include spelling, vocabulary, math, geography, essay writing and public speaking. Although scholarships are awarded, the purpose of these contests is not just to drive competitive ambition; instead, children are motivated to expand their knowledge as a way of broadening their horizons and encouraging a love of learning to supplement and enrich classroom lessons. Indeed, adults who competed at a younger age in NSF contests have returned as announcers, judges and contest coordinators, showing that this organization has also been influential in shaping a culture of volunteerism. While still in high school, some children have become chapter coordinators, furthering their leadership skills. My own experiences as a competitor and volunteer with North South Foundation have helped shape my outlook on the value of education. While my participation in the Spelling, Vocabulary, and Public Speaking Bees has fostered a love of the English language, volunteering with the Foundation has encouraged me to become more actively engaged in volunteerism in many different ways at the college level. This sense of civic duty is one of the many positive repercussions of North South Foundation’s work. The Dollar-a-Square program conducted by the organization had children canvass their neighborhoods and friends for one hundred dollars to fill a sheet of as many squares. Many children who are also regular participants in the educational contests became very involved with the idea, some even substituting donations for birthday presents. The program raised six thousand and seven hundred dollars, providing thirty-three scholarships for economically disadvantaged youth in India. Using programs such as these, NSF has not only been able to academically motivate the youth, but it has also been able to instill a sense of philanthropy, a concept that has been more widespread in the Western world than in India. Many of the recipients of the charitable scholarships in India have also given back to their communities. Surya Padala, one of the initial scholarship recipients in 1990, has started his own NGO, which currently supports one hundred poor but meritorious children. Swami Vivekananda spoke of Karma Yoga, or the idea that a person has the duty to help mankind in whatever way that he or she can. The North South Foundation has taken this goal and transformed it into reality. For those interested, the NSF Regional Contests are held between March and May every year in various locations throughout the country. Participants with high scores, based on a cut-off, are invited to the National Finals held in August-September. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners from each contest are awarded scholarships of $1,000, $500, and $250 respectively, redeemable in the winners' freshman year of college. Details can be found here. Aparna Ramakrishnan, a freshman at University of California, Berkeley, has participated many times in North South Foundation contests. In 1999, she won 2nd place at the National Spelling Bee, and in 2006, she won 1st place at the National Public Speaking Bee. She is a Bioengineering major who aspires to attend medical school and is also active in many clubs at the college level.