Two years ago, as she worked in low-income schools in Hyderabad, India, Averil Spencer ’10 began to understand that most of her bright-eyed, elementary-school-aged girls—with dreams to become doctors or computer engineers—would not reach the 10th grade. Some couldn’t afford it; many would be forced to marry. But for nearly all of them, Spencer says, opportunities had nothing to do with drive or ability.
“There was overall limited expectations for these girls, in addition to a lack of exposure to information including women’s health issues,” says Spencer, who was in India as a fellow with a social enterprise organization called IDEX Accelerator, which is supported by Bob Pattillo '82. “It’s heartbreaking.” Spencer told the story of one girl experiencing her first period who locked herself in a room, thinking she was dying of cancer, because no one told her any differently.
Rather than simply accept the status quo, Spencer chose to do something about it. In May of 2011 she held a camp, VOICE 4 Girls, for a few hundred students. She enlisted local college-aged counselors and educators from the schools to teach the girls three key things: English speaking, leadership, and critical information regarding health and safety. It didn’t take long for the innovative camp to catch the attention of parents, teachers, and organizations such as the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, which lent its financial support.
Today, just two years later, the camp remains devoted to those core educational values but is now supporting 2,000 participants a year, 250 local counselors and lead teachers, and 10 fulltime employees, including Spencer, the chief executive. In a recent article about the camp, “Giving Them Wings to Soar Higher,” in India’s newspaper The Hindu, Spencer said her hope for the girls is that they “go back to their schools, hostels, and homes and be harbingers of change.”
The article in The Hindu also noted the transformation of one previously shy girl during an end-of-camp event. “In rapid strides she walked up the dais, took the mike, looked at the 100-odd gathering and shouted, ‘I have lost stage fear. I am not afraid anymore… I want to improve the conditions in my village.’”
In a conversation this week, Spencer sounded like a seasoned executive—she spoke with passion but frequently used phrases such as “variable costs” and “licensing fees.” Indeed, Spencer has worked diligently to secure funds from organizations, individuals including Indian ex-pats, and per-pupil fees from the schools. “It’s important for us to be a revenue-generating nonprofit, so we can be self-sustaining,” she says.
More than simply remembering her time at Dartmouth with fondness, Spencer says it informs her day-to-day work. “My time at the College was the foundation for my being able to do this. I followed my passion at Dartmouth—I majored in women’s and gender studies—despite the fairly regular questions about what I would do with the degree. I use my education every single day. Professor Fluri [Jennifer Fluri, professor of women’s and gender studies] and I will still have long talks about how some of the theories I learned in class affect my day-to-day programming.”
The impact extends to Dartmouth students as well. Four undergraduates have served as four-month interns with the camp; one has served in a year-long Lombard Fellowship; and another fellow, Anne Munger ’13, is scheduled to begin a one-year tenure at the end of July. Additionally, Dartmouth students participating in the annual study-abroad program in Hyderabad visit with Spencer to learn more about the experience of students in low-income schools in India.
Lindsay Whaley, Dartmouth’s associate provost for international initiatives, says, “It’s experiences like Averil’s that reflect the possibilities that come with a Dartmouth education, and an individual’s capacity to bring about change. Her work makes us proud.”