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Alum’s Documentary Details Academy’s Service-Learning Program in Mumbai, India

Tessa Pompa '08 shares her Niswarth journey through online video.

April 02, 2009 -- Tessa Pompa ’08 may now be a freshman at Stanford, but her memories of the slums of Mumbai, which she visited while still a Phillips Academy student, are never far behind. It was just last summer she found herself in India’s largest city, scrubbing filthy concrete floors with monsoon water as gleeful toddlers skidded on their bellies through the muck. Pompa not only cleaned the hallways, she managed to film that moment—and many others just like it—for her 20-minute documentary, titled “Niswarth 2008.”

Pompa set out on the Academy’s three-week service-learning program with seven other students and six faculty members. The students had an assignment: to pick something from the trip they found interesting, research it, and present their findings in a format of their choice back at Andover. One student planned to write an economics paper on corporate responsibility; another opted to write a short story from her journal entries. Before heading abroad, Pompa decided to film the trip and create a documentary about the program.

“I originally planned to apply for an Abbot Academy Association Grant that would allow me to buy a high quality still camera, but then I realized that, if I could make it happen, a documentary would probably tell the ‘Niswarth’ story more completely,” says Pompa. “So, with the help of the Abbot grant, I resolved to make a documentary on the Niswarth program in general—what it means to be a service-learning program and how that is carried out—while focusing on the impact the program had on its 2008 participants.”

A Long Editing Process

For Pompa, the editing process was a challenge. Her 15 hours of raw footage—every second of which had to be painstakingly reviewed—meant working on the film well into her freshman year at Stanford. “I pulled several portions of footage for each sequence, and then I would go back in and cut, cut, cut,” she says. “This was the most difficult part, because I found every moment of Niswarth to be integral to the experience as a whole.”

Pompa, who believes that “when images move to the rhythm of an amazing soundtrack, it has the power to penetrate the soul of the viewer,” opens the film with a black screen and the sound of children singing against the fixed drone of a harmonium. Then images flash: a row of schoolchildren through a barred window, children playing in a slum hallway, a family preparing a meal on the floor, a trio of young boys making faces for the camera.

She also manages to capture the Niswarth participants’ greatest moment of insight of the three-week trip, when they realize they have become changemakers. Leading to the film’s apex, the eight students decide to help the residents of a slum gain access to more water by starting a petition in the community and presenting it to the local government. Pompa catches on film the students’ reactions upon learning that their efforts have enabled each resident eight minutes of water access each day, as opposed to the 20 minutes every three days to which they previously had been restricted.

Although exhilarated to be both participant and documenter of such a transformative program, Pompa realized the camera created a barrier between her and the experience; she felt constantly torn as to whether or not she should film.

“It was most difficult when we were visiting the families in slum communities,” says Pompa. “I didn’t want to give the impression that I was simply another foreigner who wanted to snap a few photos of their lives and then leave without really creating any sort of relationship with them. Between juggling the still camera and the video camera, I often felt overwhelmed.”

According to Raj Mundra, founder and director of the Niswarth program, as well as biology instructor and assistant dean of community and multicultural development, Pompa’s efforts to distance herself from something that was “impossible in some ways to distance one’s self from” earned respect from her peers and teachers alike.

“I was impressed with how she was able to jump in and be a participant and jump out and take footage and understand the big picture of what she wanted to capture,” says Mundra. “She also was able to throw herself in when she wanted to and when we needed her.  Only someone with a great deal of maturity and a sophisticated level of empathy could pull this off.”

Video Serves as Valuable Information Tool

Mundra has found the film to be an essential tool in teaching people about service-learning programs and their role in academia. He has shown “Niswarth 2008” to multiple audiences, including an all-faculty meeting in the fall, a Board of Trustees meeting this past winter, and two National Alliance of Independent School meetings.

“For kids who are interested in the program, this film will be a great part of their orientation. For faculty, the film helps convey the spirit of the program and the distinction between community service and service-learning,” says Mundra. “And for me, it reignited my commitment to this type of work and made me feel excited that I could better share the power of this program with other people.”

Next, Mundra plans to show the documentary at the “Why Teach India” conference at Harvard. Presented by Educators for Teaching India, a group he founded, the conference seeks to enhance educators’ understanding of India from multiple perspectives. Mundra, who will be on sabbatical next year in Mumbai, also will use the documentary to develop new partnerships with schools and organizations in India.

Pompa hopes to show the film at Stanford in an effort to start a “Save the Children” club on campus. “It means a lot to me when the film triggers reflections that last long after the duration of the film, because that’s the impact Niswarth had on me,” she says. “When the viewer’s reflection and inquiry stretch beyond the movie itself, I feel like I’ve helped complete a little bit of the Niswarth mission.”

To view a blog maintained by the students during last year’s Niswarth trip, click here.