2009 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: History
Age: 33 | Ashburnham, MA
Director of the Women’s Education Program
In southern India, young women can now learn the skills to escape terrible poverty.
In Madurai and Hyderabad, they’re completing high school, succeeding in college and entering careers. They are learning computer skills, nutrition and health, and financial management. They are planting sustainable gardens, volunteering in the community, and interning at hospitals and businesses. And it’s all thanks to the Women’s Education Project (WEP), founded by Zoe Timms.
“In her own determined way,” says her friend Rhonda Petree ’99, “[Timms] has built a remarkable foundation that creates opportunities for impoverished women to participate in India’s new economy.”
Timms made her first trip to India as an undergraduate taking part in sociology professor Joe Elder’s College Year in India program. Ostensibly, she’d gone to learn about the history of the south-central part of that nation.
“Bringing with me a backpack full of toothpaste, shampoo, and anti-malarial pills, I spent my senior year in Hyderabad, studying the Musi River, learning the Telugu language, and most importantly, teaching English to former child laborers,” she says. “It was the first time I had met people whose needs were so much greater than my own.”
After Timms graduated, Elder hired her to be an on-site director for College Year in India, where she administered the program in Madurai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. For two years, she worked with students and with the people of Madurai, until a conversation with fellow Year in India participant Kathryn Ugoretz ’91 helped crystallize Timms’ ambitions.
“In discussing the needs of young Indian women, we soon saw that, while there were many [non-governmental organizations] dealing with literacy and early education, there was none helping women to higher education or to develop skills that would lead to meaningful careers,” she says. “During one late-night discussion, the idea for the Women’s Education Project was born.”
Founded in 2002, the project was originally known as Sudar Foundation, from the Tamil word for light. It aims to help young women in Madurai and Hyderabad learn academic and life skills, and provides scholarships so that they can attend college. Afterward, it follows up with career counseling and job placement.
“After attending WEP’s programs,” says Petree, “Zoe’s graduates have become healthy, informed, financially aware, environmentally concerned citizens, fulfilling their potential in vital careers.”
Timms regularly travels between New York, where WEP is headquartered, and the project’s centers in India to ensure the work is well funded and meeting its goals. The process, she says, is a constant adventure.
The UW, Timms notes, provided “the template for the excitement of education that I was able to bring to young women in South India.”
“As I discovered at Wisconsin, learning takes place inside and outside the classroom,” she says. “WEP academics are rigorous. While we don’t snowshoe on Lake Mendota or visit the Bascom greenhouse, our students, some of whom had never before left their village, have visited a hill station, a seed bank, a sustainable agricultural project, as well as local businesses and high-tech industries.”