I-House resident and alumna recruits fellow students to spice up Global Girls program

International House resident Maya Pillai, AM’12, has brought Indian culture to local students enrolled in Global Girls, an organization dedicated to empowering young women on the South Side through the arts. 

Pillai, who hails from Bangalore, India, and came to the University of Chicago by way of Mount Holyoke College, spent the summer putting her Davis Projects for Peace grant to work for local high school students.  

“Of course, I’m concerned with issues in India,” said Pillai, “but right now, at this moment, I’m a part of UChicago’s community. I thought to myself, how could I be serious about [activism] and not be involved here?”

The Davis Projects for Peace grant, funded by philanthropist and former International House of New York resident Kathryn W. Davis, sponsors initiatives developed by residents of International Houses Worldwide. These initiatives promote peace and foster connections beyond the traditional confines of campus life. Pillai’s project created links between I-House, the University of Chicago and the Global Girls organization on the South Side of Chicago.

After consulting with administrators at International House, Pillai was quickly connected with Global Girls executive director Marvinetta Penn and started running Tuesday and Saturday classes on Indian culture with teenage girls and boys from a variety of South Side schools.  

Pillai and a squadron of other students and I-House residents divided into classrooms to share the Indian culture with a group of voluble high school students. Before bringing in a henna tattoo artist, Pillai led the students in a history of the partition of India, divvying up cards representing geopolitical advantages, parting the students like the Red Sea, and illustrating the nature of the 1947 Indian-Pakistani split.        

For Nailah Harris, an aspiring young actress applying to Julliard in the spring, participating in Global Girls was a life-altering experience. The first time she saw the girls do a dance show, Harris said she just had to “stick to the program like glue. I saw them dance and they looked like they were having so much fun together. I needed a core group of friends and now they’re like my sisters,” she added.

When asked to name a part of the Indian immersion sessions she enjoyed, Chicago Academy of the Arts freshman Ava Saunders said that while she thrilled to Bollywood movies, she particularly relished the most recent event when the girls collaborated in making steaming trays of piquant Indian cuisine in the I-House kitchen.    

“It was so fun, we cooked three or four dishes. I think one was called a chickpea curry. And by the time we were done, it was actually pretty good,” said Saunders.

“Everyone had something to do, wherever you looked people were working together,” Saunders continued. “Maya was really good at teaching us about the different foods, and some girls were definitely writing this all down to make at home.”

Denise Jorgens, International House Director of Programs and External Relations, said the Davis Projects for Peace resources have been put to good use over the years. The fellowships, founded in 2007 by Davis, award $10,000 for students to design a form of cultural outreach anywhere in the world. “This is the fifth year in a row that International House of Chicago residents have received the Davis grant. Last year’s grant recipients developed a summer-long program in which they went to rural areas of China to promote financial literacy.”

Promoting peace sounds like a daunting extracurricular assignment, but Pillai seems to firmly believe in the old mantra: Think globally, act locally.

“I know UChicago’s really a challenging school, and we have very little time outside of academics,” said Pillai, “but what I hope will come out of this project is that more students will get off of campus and learn how fun it is to engage with people with very different life experiences from your own.”  

Pillai and her students hope that the climax of this summer’s efforts will be a Global Girls trip to India next winter. There, the performing youth will learn more about ancient dance techniques thought to be vanishing in a rapidly altering subcontinent.