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Norton Fellow Kavya Kolli Leads Self-Defense Course for Girls in India

Junior Kavya Kolli drew on her experience as a karate black belt to give self-defense instruction to school girls living near her grandparents' home in rural India last summer.

"I wanted to find a way to help others using the karate I've studied for many years," Kavya said.

She planned and taught the two-week self-defense program as part of a Norton Fellowship, a program of Loomis' Norton Family Center for the Common Good that allows student the opportunity to pursue a self-directed community engagement project during summer break.

In both her sophomore and junior years, Kayva has been active in the Longman Leadership Institute, a residential learning community on campus with programming dedicated to leadership skills development and empowerment of young women at Loomis Chaffee and beyond. With an understanding that young women in India face some personal safety challenges, she thought she could help by giving self-defense instruction to girls in their native Hindi language.

Kavya's grandparents live in rural Chhattisgarh state in central India, where young women her age have few opportunities for extracurricular activities, she said. With limited access to automobiles, girls in India — like most of the population — walk everywhere they go, putting them at risk for drawing unwanted male attention. Through her experience in the martial arts and self-defense training, Kavya understood that carrying oneself in a confident manner can act as a deterrent for unwanted interaction. She planned to share some basic skills with the girls — such as how to break a grip and deliver an effective punch or kick — in order to boost their confidence, discourage harassment, and condition the girls to respond instinctively to aggression. In addition, Kayva planned to provide instructional materials so that leaders within the group of girls she trained could, in-turn, teach others when Kayva returned home.

Before departing from her home in Lenexa, Kansas, Kayva worked with Lindsay Allen, a police officer who teaches self-defense, in order to understand some practical applications for her karate skills. She purchased supplies — T-shirts, water bottles, and small trophies — which Kayva said would be meaningful for the girls. She also bought note pads for the girls to take notes and flash drives onto which she could copy lesson plans and videos to leave with the girls after the two-week class.

With no indoor facility, Kavya said she presented her instructions to several groups of girls in "an open-air concrete hall" in the oppressively hot and humid conditions of the monsoon season. "They don't have gym class in school, so we started off just learning what a lunge is and doing jumping jacks," she related.

Working with 15 girls in grades six to nine from two government schools, Kavya gave instruction to each of the three groups for two hours, three times per week over the two-week period. The girls were eager learners, she said, and they quickly picked up techniques and practiced them. With repetition, Kavya hoped, the defense moves might come instinctively upon confrontation. She was pleased to see leaders emerge and develop confidence, and Kayva had them start teaching others before she returned home to Kansas.

"It was truly a cross-cultural learning experience," Kayva said. The girls asked many questions and wanted to learn about living in the United States, and Kayva said she was grateful to be able to connect with the young women — with whom she shares a cultural heritage — and improve her language skills.

"Stories of catcalls and girls being approached by men was upsetting for me," she said, noting that the girls seemed to brush off these kinds of daily encounters. During her interactions with the girls, Kavya said, she learned that listening to someone's story makes it important and validates the person's feelings.

"I was inspired by the girls who showed up regularly to learn and to teach others — especially in the extreme conditions," Kavya said. The experience gave her a fresh perspective and served as a reminder of her own good fortune and the privilege of having many opportunities available to her.

Eric LaForest, Keller Family Director of the Norton Family Center, praised the motivation behind Kavya's endeavor and her follow-through. "Kavya's project echoes the wisdom of teacher and theologian Frederick Buechner, who wrote that a sense of purpose or, as he puts it, 'vocation' is 'the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet,''' Eric said. "Kavya rushed toward that intersection and made the most of her time there."

In addition to providing teaching tools for leaders among the Indian girls to share with others, Kavya is making plans with students and faculty in her Longman Leadership dorm to offer self-defense training at Loomis Chaffee for girls in nearby elementary or middle schools.

To learn more about the Norton Family Center for the Common Good and the Norton Fellowship, connect to the center's webpage.