While on co-​​op in India last year, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity third-​​year stu­dent Rushika Shekhar spent her days engaging young women at risk for HIV/​AIDS through team sports and healthy-​​living ses­sions. Along with pro­viding empow­ering mes­sages to these girls, she learned a few lessons of her own.

The biggest thing that changed about me while I was there was the way I inter­acted with people,” said Shekhar, an inter­na­tional affairs major. “The cul­ture is so dif­ferent, but the people were so open, and just take you right in. I learned so much about people while I was there, and some of the girls I worked with had been through so much already, and they’re my age.”

From July to December, Shekhar worked at the Naz Foun­da­tion, a New Delhi-​​based non-​​governmental orga­ni­za­tion com­mitted to pre­venting the spread of HIV/​AIDS. Shekhar’s work group would visit urban and rural slums, part­nering with local orga­ni­za­tions to help estab­lish trust with the women there. Most young women in these mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties who are at risk of expo­sure to HIV/​AIDS have little to no knowl­edge of the dis­ease, she said.

Shekhar said the Naz Foun­da­tion found that the young women are at greater risk for HIV/​AIDS in part due to a lack of self-​​confidence and the lack of respect they have in their com­mu­ni­ties. To teach them about HIV/​AIDS and pro­mote self-​​empowerment, the orga­ni­za­tion turned to an unlikely source — a sport called netball.

Through the foundation’s Goal pro­gram, teenage girls play net­ball. Players can’t run with the ball, but instead must pass to score goals. The game encour­ages team­work and helps break cul­tural bar­riers by forcing girls from dif­ferent social classes to interact, Shekhar said.

One of the biggest things is trying to make the girls play as a team,” Shekhar said. “They may not have friends because they don’t asso­ciate with anyone out­side their family. So we also try to teach them that they all go through the same issues (as young women).”

Shekhar also helped run life-​​skills ses­sions, which included sim­ilar pos­i­tive mes­sages. The women, most of whom don’t attend school, dis­cussed a range of issues, from domestic vio­lence and sexual health to proper hygiene. Shekhar even started an English-​​speaking pro­gram for the girls, and she devel­oped a module that could be used at other Naz Foun­da­tion sites in Jordan and Nigeria.

While Shekhar has lived most of her life in Sin­ga­pore, she was born in India, and while on co-​​op she lived with family mem­bers she rarely gets to visit. The expe­ri­ence left such an impres­sion on her that she helps the orga­ni­za­tion while back on campus in her free time, updating the group’s blog and doing admin­is­tra­tive tasks online.

This will be one of my high­lights of col­lege,” she said.