Our education shouldn’t be restricted to the four walls of a classroom, because our biggest learnings come from the outdoors, in the lap of nature !

Deepti Bhat, our next pathbreaker, Outdoor Educator, addresses the issue of nature-connectedness among young children by facilitating activities that help them build a connection with nature since many children living in urban spaces lack access to the outdoors.

Deepti talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about complementing her interest in the “outdoors” and “environment” with a Master’s degree in ‘Outdoor and Sustainability Education” from Linköping University focusing on different philosophies of education and also the theory behind outdoor education. 

For students, reflect on your life experiences, and what you are drawn to inherently, and build your career based on that, since it much more fun and enriching.

Deepti, tell us about Your background?

Most of my childhood was spent in Palakkad, a small town in Kerala. The place where I grew up consisted of vast and natural playing areas. We were surrounded by huge wild trees, and being around nature was a part of my everyday life. Also, both my parents are from the heart of Western Ghats in Karnataka. My vacation memories are filled with the beautiful greenery of this place, and how I along with my cousins climbed the guava trees and the cashew trees in the backyard of the house. From a very young age, I was drawn to plants, flowers, open sky and loved spending time outdoors. I hated being inside and being with books to ‘study’. I would always make up some or the other excuse to stay away from books and to go outside and play, or just spend time amidst nature. I think these initial experiences influenced me a lot in my choice of career as an outdoor educator. Looking back now, I realize how much I loved to ‘move’. My parents recognized my love for dance, and enrolled me for dance class when I was 10. I enjoyed it so much compared to my regular academic work that required me to sit ‘still’ and ‘read’. 

I was someone who always enjoyed doing something hands-on, and learning from outdoors became a huge part of me without me even realizing that at such a young age. But somehow moving out of Palakkad to Madurai after my 10th grade, sort of changed my priorities and I pursued Bachelors in Technology (BTech) in Information Technology. Though I did well in my course and was recruited by a well known firm, I was very clear I did not want to sit inside an air conditioned building and ‘talk’ to a computer. I am sure it is an enjoyable job and many people love it, but it was not my cup of tea, and I decided to pursue what I was passionate about. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have done my post graduation. I have a Masters of Social Science and the course is called “Outdoor Environmental Education and Outdoor Life”. I pursued this course in Linköping University in Sweden. Recently the university has renamed this programme as ‘Outdoor and Sustainability Education’. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon  career?

As I mentioned earlier, my initial childhood experiences played a huge role in shaping my career choice as an outdoor educator. But there are some key influences that defined my interests. 

When I moved to Madurai after my 10th grade, I was overwhelmed by the sight of plastic waste in the city and I started environmental activism, working in my apartment first, and then in my college, mainly spreading awareness about plastic waste. Also, what started as a paper presentation in my college on biogas, made me so passionate about the whole concept that, with the help of my professors and industry experts, I charted out a plan for implementation of a biogas plant in the college premises. I presented this plan to the college management and I was so happy when my college took up the project of setting up the biogas plant that utilized the food waste from the college hostel. This really built my confidence in my abilities. I realized I had enjoyed the whole process of learning about biogas plants, meeting industry experts and talking to stakeholders (mainly college authorities) about the biogas plant. 

During the final year of my Bachelors, I was selected for Jagriti Yatra, a train journey that takes youth to different destinations across India while introducing them to different business models. As a part of this journey, I visited several organizations ranging from those that are corporate styled like Infosys, to NGOs like Selco Foundation, Gram Vikas, etc. Growing up in small towns, my exposure was comparatively less. So, going on this Jagriti Yatra as I was finishing my Bachelors, showed me the range of possibilities and different types of work that people undertake out there in the ‘real world’. During this whole journey what I enjoyed was being in rural areas and meeting organizations that worked in rural spaces, who were trying to solve issues at the ground level. 

Also, during my 8th semester, we had an opportunity to do an internship. We were free to choose what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go and which firm we wanted to work with. I chose to work with an NGO called Selco Foundation, where I and my friend who interned along with me, were required to develop a software for managing the meetings. We were assigned to work on another project called ‘Light for Education’ which required us to develop and deploy assessments to evaluate the impact of this project on school children. 

All these experiences helped me gain clarity on choosing a career that I felt suited my personality and interests. So, after my Bachelors, I took up a job at the NGO where I had interned. And later on went on to start “Happily Outdoors”, after my masters. 

My dad has been one of those persons who instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in me. So, that defines why I started “Happily Outdoors”, through which I combine my love for outdoors, education and entrepreneurship. Also, I was lucky to have a good mentor in my Manager at the NGO I worked initially. He guided me immensely and helped me in building the necessary skills to run a huge project, especially for a fresher like me in the education space. 

Tell us about your career path

Selco Foundation, where I interned first, was the place where I ended up with my first job. Here, I got the opportunity to work in a rural area and I chose the field of education, since I was very interested in that. I started off working with a local government school, teaching some hands-on science experiments, mostly based on ‘arvindguptatoys.com’, and children were really fond of these! 

After implementing it for almost a year, my mentor suggested we expand this into a full-fledged project and involve other schools in the state of Karnataka. I was super excited about this, and with his guidance, I managed to envision this project, raise funds and build a good team to run the project called ‘Invention Education’. This project was about helping students from rural government schools to come up with innovative solutions to solve issues in their village. This involved them doing hands-on science experiments, and gaining the skills needed for problem solving. We went on to implement this project in 10 schools, working closely with the local department of education in Dakshina Kannada district in South Karnataka and Yadgir district in North Karnataka.

Since I was traveling across the length of Karnataka for this project, across the varying landscapes, something really caught my attention. My major concern was, children were living in these landscapes in close association with nature or their surrounding environment, but are the schools helping the students build their relationship with nature? The more I learnt how schools were restricted to keeping students indoors and not really working towards building the student’s existing relationship with nature, the more I wanted to get to the root of this problem and solve it. And that’s how I decided to pursue my Masters in ‘Outdoor environmental education and outdoor life’, a course that would help me in understanding how outdoors can be integrated into your daily ‘lessons’ as an educator. 

As I worked in the education space for 3 years gaining insights on public education in India, I became keen on pursuing a post-graduation. I had a strong desire to go back to university to study something I felt really felt passionate about. That’s how I started looking for courses around the globe on the internet. And since ‘outdoors’ or ‘environment’ was also my key interest, I started searching for courses that bring together my love for both outdoors and education. I found two Universities that offered this, one was University of Edinburgh in UK and other was Linköping in Sweden. I chose Sweden for three reasons: a) I had read a lot about how Scandinavian countries have a great approach to education compared to the rest of the world, and I really wanted to learn about it and experience that, b) the course fee and the living expenses was comparatively less in Sweden and c) I knew Sweden would give a different cultural experience. 

With respect to my masters programme, I really enjoyed the fact that it brought together people from different parts of Europe mostly, but those who had an experience of working in the education space. It gave us a good platform to share and learn from each other’s experiences. The course was also well designed and it was not just outdoor sessions. We also had guided indoor sessions where we were reading, researching and reflecting about different philosophies of education and also theory behind outdoor education. 

It also gave me an opportunity to build my research skills through a masters thesis. For my research project, I decided to answer the very question that motivated me to take up the course: Are the schools helping students build their relationship with nature? I conducted my field work in two government schools in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. I was guided by my amazing supervisor, who also turned out to be a great mentor and somebody who I approach for advice. She helped me build my skills as a researcher and I am immensely grateful for people like her who have cared genuinely for me and helped me excel in my endeavors. 

When I was back in India after this course, I decided to take up E-Base Kodagu fellowship that allowed me to work in a rural government school in Coorg/Kodagu and also gave me an opportunity to implement what I learnt through the course. It was here that I taught children from the Jenu Kuruba tribe and learnt a great deal from the students as well. I also learnt the integrities of including outdoors in the teaching and learning process.

As I finished my fellowship here, I was keen to start my own venture, since I already had a flare for entrepreneurship. So, that’s how “Happily Outdoors” was born. I started taking children from urban spaces who lack the access to nature, on my outdoor learning programmes. 

I love to be my own boss; I find it very restrictive when someone else takes decisions for me. I love being in charge and what really drives me is creating something from scratch. So, Happily Outdoors gave me this opportunity. Since these programmes mostly happen during the school vacations, I wanted to do something productive during the lull periods and that’s how I started working as an Education officer – Consultant, at Dakshin Foundation. I was drawn by their work in the Andaman Islands and their philosophies when it came to education. So, I continue to work here and create outdoor learning programmes in various locations for school and college students. In short, I am an outdoor educator, and I work mostly with students in the age group of 8 to 14.

How did you get your first break? 

I was placed in a well known IT firm when I finished my Bachelors. I am grateful to my college for creating such opportunities for students, but I was very clear on my priorities and my vision of working at the grassroots level. My internship really helped me get that first job in the same organization and it really launched my career in the education space. Slowly, as I progressed, my interests and experiences led me to finding my own niche in outdoor education.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Choosing a career outside of my academic background

This was a very difficult step for me since I had invested 4 years on my Bachelors in Information Technology, and also the resistance to do something different and to take up something that was economically not that rewarding is something against what our education and society prepares us for. So, to stand my ground, justify my actions and to choose this career path was something that was very challenging, but I managed to sail through with conviction in my abilities to achieve my vision. 

Challenge 2: Organizing my first outdoors programme 

When you start your own business, you will know that getting the first customer is the hardest. I initially tried signing schools for my outdoor programmes, but soon realized that authorities at school whom I was meeting with, the Prinicipals, in many cases, did not have the decision-making authority and changed my strategy. I started using online media to reach out to parents directly. It was through my initial network of known people that i did my first outdoor programme and then through word of mouth, our outdoor programmes started gaining traction. I completely enjoyed the support of my family and mentor, in organizing these programmes initially. And it was this support system that made this endeavor possible!

Challenge 3: Pandemic and its implications on education and travel sector

Since my work is completely dependent on travel to get to the destination for the outdoor programmes, I faced tremendous challenges last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions that came with it. However, I could do a few programmes online for many students, but ‘outdoors’ is a big part of my identity and my work. Though we had designed a few online programmes, it was to sail through the tough times.

Tell us about your work as an outdoor educator 

My job as an outdoor educator is to address the issue of nature-connectedness among young children, since many children living in urban spaces lack access to nature. Through our outdoor programmes, I facilitate activities that help them build a connection with nature. My reasoning is that if we want children to work towards a better environment, we need to give them the opportunities to explore and build the connection with nature. And that’s what I do. 

Working as an outdoor educator, and especially running my own programmes through “Happily Outdoors” requires me to have diverse skill sets, from managing operations like logistics (arranging travel, food, etc.), to designing activities and providing learning experiences to children, and working as team with local people at our campsites. All this requires interpersonal skills, apart from the skillsets of being a facilitator. I have learnt many of these skills as I progressed through my career. I would say, all you need is an open mind to learn from every opportunity and any person you interact with, irrespective of their status in the society, education or the work they do. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I have, very consciously, from the start of my career, chosen projects and work that are of benefit to the society. While I worked a lot with rural government schools initially, now I focus on children from urban spaces. Since I work with children directly, the power of my work lies in my ability to bring firsthand experiences in nature through adequate guidance from my team. We believe it will ultimately help the children work towards creating a better environment for the future and explore greater possibilities to build their personalities through our outdoor programmes.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

One of my favourite memories of my work has been at a residential government school where I taught children from the Jenu Kuruba tribe. This was my first work assignment straight after Masters in a tiny village in Coorg. Here, I enjoyed teaching and learning from my wonderful students. Students were in tears on my last day at school as they read their farewell note. The affection I received, and children reciprocating my care and efforts as an educator, stands out as my memorable work experience. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Reflect on your life experiences, and what you are drawn to inherently, and build your career based on that. Also, not every career option out there will give you that many economic rewards as compared to other jobs. So, when you set out on your career in a particular direction, weigh these options. 

Your career should be something fun for you, that uplifts you and also takes you to a place where you envision to be in the future. You need not have everything planned out but know your priorities.

Another important advice is look out for people, it could be your managers, colleagues, professors, teachers or anyone in your life who genuinely cares about your interests and guides you in the direction you want to go in. Nobody appears in front of you saying that they are your mentors; you will have to confide in someone who trusts in your abilities and builds your confidence. So, watch out for them and also build that support system of people around you, who can critique your work but also guide you and build your personality, you may call them your cheer leaders!!

Future Plans?

I am trying to pursue my interest in research and desire to do in-depth fieldwork with rural communities with respect to education in India. I have found the potential supervisors and the university, and I am waiting to hear on the scholarship. 

As I work towards that, I continue my work as a practitioner in the education space, creating interesting outdoor programmes for children!