May 25, 2023 | Child Sponsorship

The Examined Life

Young people learn how to manage stress as they prepare for the future

By Larry Livingston

Young people in Unbound programs around the world understand the importance of education in rising out of systemic poverty. That awareness places pressure on every student to do well in school, but there are some places where the pressure is even greater because of rigorous — and consequential — mandatory examinations.

Nowhere are the consequences greater than in India.

“These are exams that you take two times in your life,” said Unbound Vice President for International Programs Pritha Hariharan. “One is in 10th grade and the other one is in 12th grade. They are important because, depending on how you do, they basically determine the course of the rest of your life. It's a huge burden to place on kids.”

Only students with the highest scores are allowed to pursue coursework that prepares them for careers with the greatest earning potential. At the top is the sciences. Below that is the field of commerce (business), followed by the liberal arts.


Nancy Hembrom is the program evaluation coordinator for Unbound’s Jharkhand Lahanti program. She conducted the stress management workshop with the help of other staff members. “Some of the participants were really nervous and lacked confidence when discussing exam preparation,” she said. “These physical signs made it easier for me to notice that some participants were under academic stress.

Recognizing and coping

Because the stakes are so high, Unbound’s Jharkhand Lahanti program in Eastern India conducted a special stress-management workshop in January for sponsored students preparing to take their exams, which are typically held in February and March, with results released in April and May. According to program coordinator Nancy Hembrom, the workshop was prompted in part by concern over the dropout rate among students in the program.

“There are situations that the child is the only person in the family who was able to go to school,” Hembrom said. “Because of that, there are pressures coming from the family that give the child this kind of stress. There are also instances that there is no support coming from the family. … Those are some of the stressors that we incorporated in the workshop, on how they could manage it.”

Hembrom, a former teacher, was the principal designer of the workshop. She said the main goals were to help students recognize the signs of stress in their lives, teach them coping techniques and help prepare them for the state examinations.

“Both too much stress and too little stress are not good because it leads to poor performance,” she said. “This workshop’s purpose is to teach you to recognize the symptoms of stress so that you can understand what stress feels like and what you can do to help yourself manage your stress level.”

Two outside experts were invited to help with the event, a doctor who presented on maintaining mental and physical well-being, and a professional educator who provided tips on exam preparation.


Sponsored student Teresa wants to go into civil service, which is an ambitious goal. “To reach that dream, I must finish my college education and pass the examination,” she said.

Dealing with stressors

At the time she was interviewed, Teresa was preparing for the final round of state examinations. She’s 17 and in 12th grade. Sponsored through Unbound, Teresa was a participant in the workshop.

Her family owns a small rice field that they farm for income. Her father also does day labor in construction when work is available.

Teresa wants to go into civil service. For that to happen, she’d have to do well on her exams. She said techniques she learned in the workshop helped her prepare. One had to do with a modern temptation shared by young people around the world.

“I remember I’ve written on my paper, listing the negative things that I think are my stressors,” Teresa said. “One of those is that I am spending a lot of time on my mobile device. They advised me to limit the usage of my mobile phone but practice it slowly so that my mind could adjust.”

There were other valuable takeaways for Teresa.

“Our speakers have given us some tips on exam preparation, how to make notes, healthy lifestyle and also the effectiveness of a timetable,” she said.


Nancy Hembrom, left, visits with workshop participant Teresa in Unbound’s Jharkhand Lahanti office. While she hopes to go into civil service, Teresa has also expressed interest in someday working with Unbound.

Changing dreams

Saroj, 17, was another workshop participant. Like Teresa, he’s in 12th grade and was preparing to take his final examinations when he was interviewed. He was raised by his mother, a day laborer, after his father died when Saroj was 11. He says his Unbound sponsorship provides much-needed help with fees and other expenses at the boarding school he attends.

When Saroj was a child, he expected he’d go into engineering, one of the premier career fields in India. His path changed since then.

“That was my father’s dream for me,” he said. “But when he died, no other person could support me in my studies.”

Today, Saroj hopes to become a teacher, a career that will follow a liberal arts track in university. He recognizes how important it is for him to do well in the examinations. “This is the way to reach my goals in life and be able to support my family,” he said.


When Saroj was younger, he aspired to be an engineer. Today, he has a different goal. “I want to become a teacher someday because I want to teach children good things about life. I will tell them my life journey. … “

Overcoming a disadvantage

The ambition to help their families is common to young people who grow up in poverty. Commendable as it is, it also adds to the pressure they feel to succeed.

“If you ask kids in India, they will tell you, ‘Yeah, I'm going to graduate and I'm going to get a job and I'm going to lift my entire family out of poverty,’” Hariharan said. “That's a big burden.”

Not surprisingly, professional coaching for students preparing for examinations is big business in India. But those services are expensive and can only be afforded by families with financial means. It’s one example among many of how social systems in India and elsewhere make it difficult for young people to break out of the cycle of poverty.

“Our [Unbound] families, they don't have the money,” Hariharan said. “They barely have the money to send their kids to school. So, a lot of times what you will see is our sponsored kids use scholarship funds to go to these coaching classes and help boost up their scores.”

This dearth of preparation resources for economically disadvantaged students illustrates why the stress management workshop provided by the Jharkhand Lahanti program was so valuable to those who participated. Hembrom was pleased with the response and sees the benefits lasting beyond the examinations.

“I expect that all the participants should retain and practice all learned techniques from the workshop,” she said. “This will help them to lead a healthy and less stressful life.”

If you ask kids in India, they will tell you, ‘Yeah, I'm going to graduate and I'm going to get a job and I'm going to lift my entire family out of poverty.’ That's a big burden.

— Pritha Hariharan, Unbound Vice President for International Programs

Unbound Regional Reporter Tristan John Cabrera contributed information for this story.