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Erin Ernst Empowering Women through Project Lotus

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It’s common knowledge that not everybody in the world has access to education. This is easy for most HIES students to forget, as school is the annoying reason we have to wake up so early in the morning, not the factor that decides whether we eat or not. Although the education problem is a big and obvious one, very few people set out and try to change this. The problem seems too big, too distant. But, senior Erin Ernst has decided to tackle this international issue with her capstone project for the Program for Global Citizenship: Project Lotus. She aims to “provide at least one girl per year in Darjeeling, India with an education.”

Ernst first recognized the severity of this issue during an international trip to India, where she was “truly culture shocked” noting, “everything was different.” During her time there, she was “shocked by the poverty [she] saw and how stratified the society was gender wise,” taking a particular interest in the way women and girls are treated. “It was so clear that they didn’t have the same opportunities as men,” especially considering that a woman’s value is defined by the men in her life. Without a patriarch or husband, opportunities are far and few in between.

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Darjeeling is a small village in the northeast of India. Photo by Erin Ernst.

But, she also fell in love with the Indian culture, despite it being “the polar opposite of what [she’s] used to.” To her, it was “exciting and new and beautiful,” she just saw an opportunity for reform. Ernst knows that “education brings about change,” and that educating the women of a nation truly does impact economic standing and social equality. She’s always been “passionate about access to education because it gives access to opportunities” and that’s all that these woman need: an opportunity.

So, Ernst came up with the idea of Project Lotus, named after the Indian national flower. A lotus is “intricate and pure, but it grows out of muddy water.” Yet, “out of all that mud grows a beautiful, pristine lotus,” which Ernst believes to be the perfect symbol of the young women she aims to empower.

“Out of all that mud grows a beautiful, pristine lotus.””

— Erin Ernst

To accomplish her goal, Ernst partnered with The Learning Tea, an Atlanta-based social enterprise that has “a hand in Darjeeling” and sells tea from the village. They will also “pick the scholars” to receive the funds through an “extended application process.”

In order to provide an education to these young scholars, Ernst will host an Indian themed fundraising dinner once a semester to raise at least $1,200 a year to pay the tuition for a girl in Darjeeling, one who has no other opportunity for education. Many are young girls who have aged out an orphanage at the age of 16 and face life on the street and all its dangers, like sex trafficking. Others are girls like Angel, who was so malnourished that she was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t get to the school in her hilly village. Ernst aims to “empower,” not to give handouts. She knows that “something beautiful and successful and strong can grow out of a mucky situation,” and she knows that an education will be the way in which these girls grow up and out of poverty.

Ernst at a Buddhist temple outside of Balla, India. Photo courtesy of Erin Ernst.

Ernst at a Buddhist temple outside of Balla, India. Photo courtesy of Erin Ernst.

The first fundraising dinner for Project Lotus will take place on Monday April 20th at 7:00 in the Malcolm Library, complete with a traditional Indian dinner, Indian entertainment, a henna artist, and a speaker from The Learning Tea. Ernst describes it as “a cultural experience” that will bridge gap between the HIES community and Darjeeling, India.

Yes, access to education is a huge issue and it will take a while to fix, but extreme progress can be made just one girl at a time thanks to people like Ernst who step up to the plate and try to make a difference.

Purchase tickets to the fundraising dinner at projectlotusatl.eventbrite.com.

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Erin Ernst Empowering Women through Project Lotus