Getting to the heart of it

Payal Shah’s research isn’t conducted in a lab or by looking at statistics. For two years, Shah lived her research — eating, sleeping, talking and studying alongside her young subjects in rural India. 

Shah, an assistant professor in the College of Education, has spent significant time in India over the past 10 years to better understand problems facing young girls there and their education. She wanted to understand how — and if — education can empower girls there and how education impacts social issues in the country. 

“I look at the ways in which the formal education system in India can or cannot promote a greater orientation toward overall gender equality. In particular, I look at programs that explicitly try to promote girls’ empowerment and try to understand how the girls internalize these programs by listening to their experiences” she said. 

Living in the rural village – with no consistent electricity or running water – was challenging, Shah said, but it allowed her to experience the difficulties facing the girls. 

“It was one of the most impactful experiences in my life because I developed deep, real relationships with the girls and the teachers,” she said. “They really welcomed me into their world. I learned much more from them than one can imagine, and I took away much more than one could possibly give back.” 

That experience gave Shah more insight into the data she studied. It gave her the ability to understand the nuances of why and how, she said. 

“You can make a lot more sense of the problems that rural, marginalized girls experiences when you see how they live through individuals,” she said. “Girls’ voices are largely absent from academic and policy debates. The experiences of the girls are important and can help us understand what’s happening on the ground.”  

Shah made it a point to include local, state and national lawmakers in her work, keeping them up-to-date so that the data could have a real world application. 

“I’d like my research to have multiple impacts. So of course, the academic component is very important to me, but my professional engagement with India started in 2003 working with these populations firsthand,” she said.  “I want my research to be helpful as policymakers think about developing policy. ” 

This research could have a broader impact beyond India’s borders, Shah said.

“I think it’s just as important for us to know how marginalized girls in India are living as we know how children in the inner-city and rural America are living. These are transnational problems that manifest themselves around the world,” she said. “If we truly want to understand what these problems look like and come up with locally appropriate solutions, the more examples we have the better equipped we will be to address these issues.”  

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