Project dosti: Bringing Students and Service Together

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Project DOSTI:

Bringing Students and

Service Together

Mili Dutt

Poli Sci 228D

NGO’s and Developing Nations

Professor David Abernethy

We all have experienced the joy of making others smile. But doing so in an environment where there is ostensibly much less to smile about is even more rewarding.“

  • Guru Senthupathy, Dosti volunteer, Mumbai, 1998

I wanted to thank all of the Dosti organizers and past volunteers who

helped me put this paper together – your interviews and experiences made this paper

come alive! Special thanks to Amit Garg who was so patient as I continuously hounded

him with emails and questions. Good Luck for the future – I have no doubt

that Dosti will continue to be the vibrant, dedicated, and passionate organization

that the current and past leadership have defined it to be.

Globalization has caused the world to become a smaller place. Americans are quickly realizing their actions at home have worldwide ramifications. In this spirit, Americans are increasingly devoting their time to worldwide causes such as poverty, hunger, and abuse. College campuses, with Stanford being no exception, have exploded recently with the amount of third world and development-focused student-led groups growing yearly. On the Stanford campus, out of a total of about 400 student groups, 46 of them are service organizations, and of those, 8 focus specifically on developing countries.1 This is a dramatic increase from a decade back when there were just a handful of service organizations and maybe one or two were internationally focused.2 One of the longer standing groups is Project Dosti, a student run organization that sends students to India every summer to provide service for six weeks, that was established 10 years ago. Volunteers commit themselves to the program during winter quarter and spend all of spring preparing themselves through language classes and group workshops run by Dosti. In addition to instituting the volunteer program, Dosti has started an anti-malaria campaign and offers a class in the spring on India’s underclass that is open to the Stanford community. The following study will offer an in depth analysis on the organization, the people who lead it, the volunteers and students it attracts, and the measures taken to maintain it over the years. The focus will be on the growth in volunteer applicants during the last few years and the reasons behind this trend. Examining past interest in the group, conducting interviews with students who have gone on the trip, and analyzing the change in structure, shows that Dosti’s popularity increase has been more a function of the group’s successful reorganization and restructuring over the past three years than increased students interests in volunteering abroad. The interest in volunteering has always been present, over time Dosti has simply gained the tools to tap into it.

In Hindi, Dosti means, “friend.” To this end, Dosti strives to build relationships, friendships, and a sense of community amongst its members and those it attempts to help. Dosti aims to turns its past volunteers into lifelong “friends,” many students who have volunteered with Dosti have gone on to careers in public service or have maintained the bonds they created with each other while volunteering. Project Dosti is affiliated with the Haas Center for Public Service3 at Stanford and as mentioned earlier, is completely student run. Its mission statement states, “Project DOSTI is committed to giving students an opportunity to provide service, gain a better understanding of India, strengthen bonds of shared culture and values with India.”4 It provides students with the ability to learn more about India and to strengthen existing cultural ties or expose themselves to a new culture. From the beginning, Dosti has aimed to build a lifelong bridge between students and service.

Founding of Organization

Sameer Bhatia, the founder of the organization, started Dosti after considering going on the Amigos program in Latin America, which promotes a very similar concept of sending youth to underdeveloped countries to work with children. Bhatia realized he had a passion for volunteering but was curious to find a project that would allow him to travel to India, from where his parents emigrated. His father was involved with People For Progress In India, a Seattle non profit that funds projects in India, and was a good source of information on the topic; “I asked my father if there was any similar program for volunteering in India. He half-jokingly said, ‘No, why don't you start something?’ I took him seriously, and the rest, of course, is history!”5 Bhatia was still a senior in high school when he started Project Dosti and in the beginning it consisted of providing Hindi language and Indian history lessons to groups of about 15 students. When he came to Stanford he brought the project with him in hopes of making it a popular Stanford program. “Our vision was to make it a popular program for Stanford students. In later years, I sketched out detailed plans for a national program and began marketing DOSTI as such.”6 The first trip to India took place in the summer of 1993 and the project team consisted of four people, two adults and two students. The group helped initiate the Community Health Outreach Program for the Bangalore Children's Hospital and Research Center in Bangalore, Karnataka, which has now become the largest children’s hospital in India.

In its early stages, the organization was focused on the medical aspect of public service. Over time this shifted to an emphasis on development-related problems; but both topics involved working specifically with youth. In the beginning, Dosti wanted to gain student interests by offering trips to low-risk and urban areas within India, where students wouldn’t feel unsafe or overwhelmed. This was better served by focusing on medical facilities in large urban areas where emergencies could quickly be dealt with, rather than small, grassroots centers located in rural villages. Bhatia gained peer interest by mentioning the project to friends, and as more people became interested he used other well-established groups, such as Sanskriti7 and Asha,8 to promote Dosti. He said he was fortunate because there weren’t any other competing organizations at the time that was doing similar work. He didn’t face many administrative difficulties in starting Dosti and mentioned that “Stanford is a very welcoming place for service groups and though it was a bit overwhelming at first, once we got started interest really picked up.”9 At first, there wasn’t a very formal organization structure but over time a cohesive executive board has developed.

Dosti Structure

Dosti’s executive board consists of the President, Financial Officer and Secretary, along with about three members who help facilitate the planning and language classes. Leaders are usually past volunteers who have a real passion for the organization and want others to have as rich as an experience as they were exposed to. There is not a formal election process, outstanding members are asked to head the organization by the preceding leaders. This year’s President, Amit Garg, said that he got involved in heading the organization almost by surprise. “I had hoped to be involved with organizing Dosti as an upperclassmen, but not as a sophomore. However the group really needed me and I didn’t want to jeopardize its future.”10 Garg has been a driving force in the organization since he joined and a crucial component of restructuring the organization. He has revamped the website to be an information portal about past and current projects, volunteer contact information, an archival of papers written by students in the spring classes, and provide details on how to become involved with Dosti and the summer trip. He also set up the mailing list, which boasts about 450 subscribers, and created a standardized application process for the volunteers. Harini Raghupathy is the Financial Officer and has been involved with Dosti since 2000; her role is to plan the budget and appropriate ASSU and Stanford Fund funding. Golda Phillip is a sophomore who has been involved since last year; she is the secretary, in charge of organizing the lecture series, and teaching the Malayalam classes. The board holds weekly meetings to discuss the current progress of the volunteers, how the classes are proceeding, receive overall status reports, and future plans.

A problem the coordinators have faced in the past is reallocating leadership responsibilities at the end of the year. Being a student-led organization the turnover rate is very high. Most students are involved for one or two years, very few stay dedicated all four years at Stanford and even fewer will keep in contact after graduation. This situation was a real problem early on for Dosti. While Bhatia was still an undergraduate his dedication and determination saw the program through his four years at Stanford. After he left there was a large amount of restructuring, and the summer trip was not held in 1999 so that the coordinators could reorganize themselves and focus on implementing the spring quarter class. Garg says that thanks to the commitment of Bhatia and other former volunteers, the group has not faced collapse and he hopes that with the creation of the website, the document archive, and the standardization of executive positions and responsibility, Dosti will be able to survive multiple leadership changes. The group has seen a real revival in the past three years; after implementation of the class and rearrangement of the group, Dosti’s campus presence has grown with more people enrolling in the class every year and over thirty applicants for the summer program this upcoming summer.

One of the important goals for the executive board is to give the volunteers enough training and background to be able to handle themselves in India. Peter, a former volunteer and current organizer, remarked “one of the most unique aspects of Dosti and what sets it apart from so many other groups, is that the organizers don’t go on the trip. They are in charge of planning it and facilitating cultural and language preparation but in the end the volunteers are on their own.”11 The responsibility of ensuring the volunteers do not face a huge cultural shock when arriving in India is on the shoulders of the organizers who must give the students the right tools to deal with any situation that may arise.

In addition to the executive team, Dosti has two advisors, one through the Haas Center and another who is a faculty member. These two are the group’s liaison with the university and were chosen for their relevant experience with the work that Dosti does. The Haas advisor is Kent Koth; he has spent time volunteering in Nepal and India and provides mentoring for the service side of Dosti. The faculty advisor is Mark Mancall, a professor in the History department for the past 28 years; he has been involved with Dosti since 2000. When Dosti began offering a class through Stanford’s Student Initiated Courses, a faculty advisor was needed to oversee the course. During the first year Akhil Gupta was the advisor and when he left on sabbatical, Garg approached Mancall to take his place. Garg stated, “I didn’t know of any other faculty member who had the depth of knowledge about India that Mancall possessed and I have been extremely pleased in working with him. He is a definite asset to the organization.”12 Mancall has given the students free reign in designing the course yet been very helpful in dealing with the university.


Each quarter has a different focus for Dosti, with the culminating project being the trip to India in the summer. For the past several years the focus during the autumn and winter have been to prepare for the spring class and summer trip but during this past fall the organizers concentrated on an anti-malaria campaign. Garg, Philip, and Raghupathy have been the principal drivers behind this project, which involves gathering donations to send to India to provide medical supplies and train doctors to deal with the ever-increasing problem of malaria. The three went to different dorms on the Stanford campus and ask if each would like to ‘adopt’ a city in India for whom they could help provide aid. They were well received and dorm participation is high, the chart of donors is included as Exhibit 1 of the appendix.

After traveling to rural Bihar, one of the poorest regions of India, and working with the NGO Jagriti Vihara, Garg was moved to encourage grant foundations to sponsor a science lab so that the schoolchildren could be exposed to basic elementary science education. In his grant proposal to Asha, he stated, “currently the NGO supports about 1,000 students in outlying villages, thereby serving over 10,000 people. They also have projects on job training, irrigation and micro-credit to woman. Jagriti Vihara is entirely self-funded but they have been under serious financial trouble recently.”13 The students the center educates would otherwise not have the option of going to school. The center runs very tight on funds and did not have the budget to provide science education to the kids. The coordinators worked with Garg to think of feasible funding sources for this venture. Last year Garg made a presentation to Asha on behalf of Jagriti Vihara and they granted the $2200 necessary for the project; the lab has been constructed and in service since August 2001.

Dosti is also in the process of appropriating funds for a mobile-library for the towns surrounding Jagriti Vihara. The library will consist of a van that will drive itself from village to village, stay for a week in each village, and allow local children to check out and read books. It is difficult for most villagers to come to a central town to use a library, yet they all want their children to be educated - the mobile library will provide them with education right on their streets. Asha gave the necessary funding for the project ($5,625) and about 60% of that will be spent on books, 30% on revamping the van that Jagriti Vihara (who will run the project) already owns, and the other 10% on a microphone to announce the van’s arrival into each village and other maintenance costs. The van will be in service by July or August of 2002.

The main foci of the organization are the spring class and the summer trip. Every spring the volunteers work with each other and the Dosti organizers to best prepare themselves for their upcoming travel. Before 1999, this preparation involved weekly meetings with occasional lectures by Stanford professors and associated faculty. After a few years the Dosti organizers received the funding to turn these informal sessions into a student-run class and for the past three years Dosti has held a class for the Stanford community in which the topic is India’s underclass (History 186B: Perspectives on India). This year’s lecture schedule is included in the appendix. In addition to weekly lectures, sections are held once a week as a chance for students to discuss the lectures and share any research they are conducting for their forthcoming trip. The class is mandatory for anyone going on the Dosti trip in the summer (of which there are usually 4 to 7 each year) but this year has an enrollment in upwards of fifty people. Most participants have felt the class gives a very good and general overview of different problems facing the lower classes of contemporary Indian society.

In addition to the lecture series, basic language classes are offered so that the students will know simple words and phrases before reaching their volunteer destination. This year the class focuses on basic conversational Malayalam, the primary language in Kerala, and is taught by a native speaker. The goal of the language classes is not to reach fluency but to give volunteers confidence with simple phrases so that upon arrival they are not overwhelmed with their new surroundings. Past volunteers have said that though the language classes have been helpful they did not aptly prepare an American for complete immersion in a new culture and language. Speaking about his experience in Mumbai in 1998, Neil Kothari reflects, “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get over the language barrier. While two of us spoke very limited Hindi, it was not easy to get our message across. Those that had no language skills had a difficult time, and often relied on those of us with limited skills.”14 Stanford currently offers conversation and grammar classes in Hindi, Punjabi, and Tamil, but unfortunately the students do not know if they have been accepted into the Dosti program until the end of winter quarter which means that most have not been preparing since the beginning of the year. Past volunteers have noted that though the language barrier is a problem, their experience is still rich and fulfilling just on account of the children, who have been really understanding and patient in working with the lack of fluency in the volunteers.

Preparation for the trip includes culture instruction in addition to the Dosti lecture series and the language classes. Cultural preparation consists of learning about Indian history, culture, and religions. Since all three intertwine to create everyday Indian life, it is imperative that volunteers know a bit about each for the region they are visiting. The amount of local public service that is prevalent will be examined so that students will know what to expect upon arrival. Areas that are accustomed to foreign volunteers will not perceive them as outsiders, while smaller villages may not be as welcoming. Instruction on how to maintain personal health and safety are crucial to a volunteer, especially those that have never traveled to India before and have not been exposed to monsoons, mosquitoes, and other tropical diseases. A region’s customs would have to be explained so that volunteers can feel comfortable and know what to expect when interacting with children and their families. Finally, project specific training is given so that students have the appropriate background for the children they will meet. Going to urban versus rural areas will provide a completely different experience and students must know what types of things to expect, for example, during the Mumbai 1998 trip the volunteers were exposed to young children from battered homes, many with drug dependency problems. This is in juxtaposition to the group that traveled to Bihar last year that worked with children exposed to issues such as inadequate water supple and acute poverty. The cultural preparation has proved the group well so far. When asked about the students reaction to India, Suman, one of the coordinators from Jagriti Vihara stated, “The visitors from an affluent and modern country like U.S.A. may find it difficult to face unknown hardships for lack of usual residential facilities, but our guests from Stanford University appeared fully prepared to appreciate the life style of the Ashramites at Jagriti Vihara.”15 The students voiced no complaints about their surroundings and acclimated to the local customs quickly.

The trip to India in the summer is the culminating step in a year’s worth of work for Dosti. In the past volunteers have spent six weeks at their project site and have then had the freedom to return to the states or remain in India and travel for the duration of their summer. Due to the increased number of volunteers, for the summer of 2002, two separate volunteer groups have been organized and each will be in Kerala for four weeks. The trip is the volunteers’ chance to put to use all of the language skills, cultural lessons, and interaction frameworks they have learnt over the past quarter.

Project Locations

Four main issues are considered when picking a location for volunteering:

  1. Will the work be meaningful? Though the aim of the project is to help children, the volunteers must be able to gain some benefit from their trip halfway across the world. It is a mutual learning process and if the students feel they are only putting in effort and not getting any benefits out, then they will leave frustrated and unsatisfied after having invested much time and money into the project.

  2. Is it safe for Western volunteers? The executive team is very aware about the safety concerns of volunteers and strives to do everything necessary to ensure their security and protection. When asked about safety Garg referenced a past trip for which the location was successfully changed due to the feelings of the volunteers. “In 2001 we had a group of 5 girls, first time such a gender imbalance, and chose the same location as the previous year because we deemed it safe. It turned out some volunteers felt unsafe so we decided to change locations.”16 The organizers want to avoid situations like this and take extreme care when researching the security of an area.

  3. Can the language barrier be surmounted? The principle form of communication with the children will be through speaking. The volunteers are not expected to be at a level of fluency upon arrival but knowing a few important words and phrases is always beneficial. The language of the region must be able to be “crash” taught at a simplistic level in the spring quarter before the trip.

  4. How easy will communication and coordination be? Necessary preparations must be made beforehand in regards to volunteer housing, food, and other important accommodations. The Dosti coordinators must be able to communicate with the program site prior to arrival and with the volunteers after they have reached to ensure the project is proceeding without any problems.

Only after these four questions have been answered to the satisfaction of the executive board will they pursue looking deeper into a location. In the past Dosti has been fortunate to be able to use the connections of its members to help narrow down the search as well. For the first two summers the group was able to go to the Children's Hospital and Research Center in Bangalore because the principal doctor of the clinic, Dr. Nandini Mundkur, was a family friend of Bhatia’s parents. In addition to providing the project source, Dr. Mundkur allowed the students to stay in her home, thereby helping with accommodation costs and giving the students a more comfortable surrounding. In 1995, 1996, and 1997, the group also returned to Bangalore due to Bhatia’s familiarity with the city. In 1998 the group went to Mumbai because Natasha Jethanandani, one of the volunteers on the trip, knew it well. The 2000 trip was unique because it went to Bihar, a completely unknown region to anyone in the group. Since the location and project with Jagriti Vihara worked out so well the summer before, in 2001 the group returned to Bihar. For the summer of 2002 Kerala was chosen because it is a very safe state and Golda Phillip is familiar with the region.


Dosti receives a portion of its funding from Stanford. The total costs to run the organization in 2002 was around $7000, which is excluding individual travel costs for the summer. Of that amount, the group receives $1600 in ASSU funds, and $3000 from having the volunteers write Stanford Fund letters. This money is allocated throughout the year to organizational expenses and any money left over is divided amongst the volunteers for their trip. Since most of the ASSU funding does not rollover for upcoming years it is imperative that Dosti spend all of their funds or otherwise the account will be reset to zero. For the past two years, Dosti has been able to fund everything but the volunteers’ plane tickets to India – meaning they have covered accommodations and travel within India. Garg stated that The Stanford Fund letters have been a big help in covering trip costs, “Last year Dosti did not use The Stanford Fund and we had to dip into our emergency funds, which were depleted. This year we had the foresight to sign up for The Stanford Fund, and that money has been critical.”17 Integrating on-campus-funding sources has been part of the restructuring of Dosti; the group tried tapping into external financial support earlier but has found internal sources to be more accessible and dependable.

The biggest expense for the program is the plane ticket to India and this cost falls on the shoulders of the volunteers. Prices for tickets during the summer heavy-travel months range from $1,000 to $1,300 per ticket and often reach as high as $1,500 if the tickets are not bought far enough in advance. To some, this is a deterrent to applying; the organizers are aware of this but acknowledge there is not much they can do, the funding they receive is not enough to cover the cost of plane travel to India. The critical component of the program is to travel to India, they do not want to discriminate against those that cannot afford it but they can not hope to receive a large enough donation to cover the plane costs. “We have tried reaching to non-Stanford sources but it is significantly harder. I know in 1995 the volunteer funded themselves by contacting donors individually.”18 The executive board feels that since the students are told of their acceptance by the end of winter quarter, they might devise means of garnering funding in the three to four months before travel. They also emphasize that the ticket is basically the only cost to the student. With ASSU and Stanford fund money, the group is able to subsidize almost every other aspect of the trip (mainly other travel and accommodations - souvenirs, clothing, etc bought on the trip is of course a personal expense to the student). However, unless Dosti can dramatically increase the amount of funding they collect, this expense will remain a slight prohibitive factor in applying to the program.

Future budget estimates (Appendix Exhibit 6) show that Stanford Fund letters will eventually be phased out and replaced with increased ASSU funding. There is also hope to approach donors to help pay for a portion of the costs. This has been attempted in the past, but success can be slim. Garg mentioned that it has been more difficult to receive outside Stanford funding after the September 11th attacks because the focus of many foundations and charities has been the victims in New York and Washington DC. Dosti had been in discussion with the Ford Foundation to provide funding for its anti-malaria campaign but this was pulled after the attacks.

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