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UC Berkeley alumna receives top award for educational reforms in her homeland of India
23 Mar 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- Efforts to reform education in India and bolster education for girls were recognized today (Thursday, March 23) with the presentation of the University of California, Berkeley's Haas International Award to Urvashi Sahni, a UC Berkeley alumna.

The prize is awarded each year to a UC Berkeley graduate achieving distinction in his or her work who is a native and resident of a country other than the United States.

Sahni is the 31st recipient of the Haas International Award. Colleagues describe her as charismatic, intelligent, rebellious and committed to improving education in her Indian homeland.

The Haas International Award, which honors Elise and Walter A. Haas, has been given to the Governor of Taiwan (1995), the Minister of Japan to the United Nations (1978) and the President of Ecuador (1967).

Sahni returned to Lucknow, India, after earning her PhD in language and literacy from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education in 1994.

Chancellor Robert Berdahl presented Sahni with the Haas International Award during Charter Day ceremonies at the campus's Zellerbach Hall. Sahni called the award "a great honor" and said UC Berkeley holds a "great place in my heart and my life."

The chancellor also bestowed Dwight Steele, who holds undergraduate and law degrees from UC Berkeley, with the first Peter E. Haas Public Service Award. The award, set up to parallel the Haas International Award, recognizes Steele's work as an advocate and volunteer in grassroots environmental causes such as protecting San Francisco Bay, the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe.

Sahni's accomplishments include:

· Initiating and managing a school reform project involving 62 schools, 16,000 students and 258 teachers in a rural area of Uttar Pradesh, her home state;

· Launching an innovative in-service program for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) with 30,000 kindergarten and first-grade teachers in 28 districts within Uttar Pradesh;

· Working as director of an action research project to bolster girls' education and serving on the state government's Girl Child Mission to promote girls' education;

· Running the "Study Hall" school in Lucknow, a school dedicated to the child as a person, as well as operating its affiliated girls' school and subsidized school in a rural area. UC Berkeley professor Anne Dyson, who served as a mentor to Sahni along with professor Herbert Simons, said Sahni, is guided by an "enormous intellect and heart."

"One of the reasons we took her (at the Graduate School of Education) is she was very interested in reforming education," said Simons. Sahni already had founded two schools, an urban institution for primary children and a rural school for girls before coming to UC Berkeley.

Simons visited Sahni in India after her graduation. He said he was impressed by her success boosting education for children in a poor village by building a classroom at a school where classes otherwise assemble outdoors. He said Sahni also offers afternoon classes for teenaged girls in a classroom built behind her own home.

"She's very charismatic, and she's very good working with teachers," Simons said. "They really look up to her and respect her, and she's very committed to people in the most need of help."

Despite India's fiercely competitive educational system, her school has earned a reputation for excellence and success, according to authorities.

Sahni, who received her BA in political science in 1976 from the University of Pune in Maharashtra, India, and an MA in philosophy in 1984 from the University of Lucknow, takes a broad view of education and what it can require in Third World countries. Simons said she once helped a group of women buy a tractor to use for plowing to improve family finances and educational opportunities for children.

At the same time Sahni was in Berkeley for the Charter Day ceremony, Donald McQuade, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for university relations and professor of English, was in India to discuss the establishment of a global institute of science and technology. Top U.S. research universities, including UC Berkeley, will help develop curriculum for the institute and its campuses across India.

Also this week, President Clinton met with India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to sign a vision statement stressing the importance of a stronger collaboration between their two countries, emphasizing science and technology education.


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