It was tough. Waking up at 5.30am, using makeshift toilets and bathing in icy streams and putting in six hours of hard physical labour.

And yet, Dubai students come back after a project in rural India, buoyed by the thought that they've made a difference to the world

Children growing up in the UAE lead sheltered lives with little exposure to the hardships suffered by those living in less prosperous regions of the world.

But a recent initiative by The Millennium School, Dubai, took its students out of their air-conditioned classrooms for a different kind of learning.

The youngsters got first hand experience of living in remote Indian villages, interacting with villagers and of doing physical labour on construction sites.

Life was tough and the work exhausting, but the project proved to be an enriching experience that benefited the students as much as the villagers they had set out to help.

The students were able to participate in this project because The Millennium School, Dubai, has been granted regional membership of Round Square, a worldwide association of schools that aims to educate young people for life in the fullest sense by organising these projects.

The mission

"Our school's mission is to equip our pupils not only with academic skills, but also with a global outlook and leadership qualities allied with a social conscience. Our parents too frequently express the concern that their children lack exposure to the harsher realities of life."

"We applied for membership of Round Square because we are always on the lookout for opportunities for our students to experience learning outside the classroom and give something back to society. We are proud to be the only school in the UAE to be granted this privilege," said Lakshmi Ramachandran, principal, The Millennium School.

The principal explained that the school was granted regional membership as a step towards full membership after satisfying Round Square's stringent requirements, which included a visit by senior officials to observe the functioning of the school.

"Our students got the opportunity to participate in two projects that proved to be life-changing experiences for them," she added.

A team of five boys from Grades 10 and 11 participated in the first project in Jaidwar village in the North Indian state of Uttaranchal.

These included Akash Gupta, Naufal Naushad, Mishal Harish, Lavin Keswani and Rahul Harish accompanied by teacher Benny Joseph.

Along with students from other Round Square member schools, they helped in the excavation, and filling up of the foundation of a community centre for the village, conducted computer classes for the villagers and volunteered at a medical camp.

"Life in the village was difficult. We had to use a makeshift toilet in a tent and we had to bathe in an icy stream. We woke up everyday at 5.30am and put in six hours of hard physical labour collecting stones, fetching water, digging the foundation, mixing cement and building the walls. We had to travel 17 kms to the nearest town to make a phone call or buy a bottle of Pepsi. But despite the hardships, it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life and I am thankful to my school for giving me this wonderful opportunity," said Naufal Naushad.

It wasn't all work though. During breaks, the boys got an opportunity to explore the countryside.

"We went on treks on the Himalayan foothills and saw exotic flora and fauna and enjoyed picking berries from trees and drinking water from cool mountain streams. The villagers were warm and friendly and invited us to join in their dancing and singing and to share meals with them. They also took us to their fields and orchards and taught us various cultivation techniques," recalled Mishal Harish.

The boys made many new friends from other participating schools. "Working together as a team was the best part of the trip and the most satisfying moment was when we finally completed the digging and levelling of the foundation. We have learnt many valuable lessons such as to be content with what we have and not be greedy. This lesson was driven home to us when the villagers returned a video camera that one of us had carelessly misplaced during a trek," said Akash Gupta.

Adding to rural education

The second project was located in the tsunami-affected village of Vanagiri in Tamil Nadu in South India.

Ruchika and Neeti Manglani, Natasha Shekhar, Beatrice Adeline and Amna Zafar, accompanied by teacher Asha Chandran, participated in this project.

The girls worked on a construction site helping to add three new RCC classrooms to an existing village school.

They also conducted a social survey to collect information on the effect of the tsunami on the lives of the villagers, a task that provided them with deep insights into lives very different from their own.

"We saw that the villagers manage without most of the comforts that we take for granted in Dubai and yet they are happy. It helped us to see life in its true perspective and has given us a new appreciation for all that we are blessed with," said Beatrice Adeline.

"During our survey, we heard many sad stories about how the tsunami drastically changed the lives of the villagers.

But we were also struck by the resilience of the people and how little they asked for. It gave us great satisfaction to see the construction work completed and know that we have contributed in some way to helping these people rebuild their lives," she added.

The girls admit that it was difficult to adjust to the basic accommodation, the heat, the mosquitoes and the Indian-style toilets.

But they fondly remember the joy of working together as a team on the construction site and the relaxing walks through lush green rice fields in the evenings.

"We saw a side of India that we did not know existed. We have learnt that our problems are petty compared to those faced by the villagers — an important lesson that we could not have learnt at school," said Amna Zafar.