Chemical engineering student volunteers at Indian orphanage
Robby Pagels with children in Tiruvannamalai.
Tiruvannamalai is a small temple town in southern India.


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9:11 a.m., Dec. 15, 2009----While most of his friends were doing summer research or working for pay at restaurants, beaches, and stores, Robby Pagels, a sophomore chemical engineering major at the University of Delaware, spent the summer of 2009 volunteering at an orphanage in India.

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He began his search for a volunteer opportunity at a Web site that he refers to as “the Craigslist of India.” Knowing that he wanted to work with kids, he selected the Wide Children's Home in Tiruvannamalai, a small temple town in southern India.

Pagels, a UD Honors Program student, taught English, did paperwork, and helped with homework, but he is convinced that he got more than he gave and learned more than he taught.

“When I got to the orphanage,” he says, “it was 4 a.m. All 36 of the kids were asleep on the floor in a room about the size of two small offices here at UD. They were lying on top of one another without blankets, sheets, or pillows.”

Reality hit Pagels immediately. “It made me realize how much we have here,” he says.

He was also soon to realize that in some ways, it didn't matter to the children in the orphanage how little they had. “They taught me games,” he said. “When you have nothing, you become really creative about how you play. I learned hundreds of things you can do with rocks and sticks.”

The lesson continued when he got home and spent a few weeks in the American daycare center where he has worked for the past few summers. “I tried some of those simple games with my kids here,” he says, “and they just didn't get it.”

Pagels's experiences over the five weeks he spent living at the orphanage included riding in an auto-rickshaw with 16 other people, discovering that having squirrels and lizards in the house is normal, and juggling lightbulbs from one fixture to another to trick antiquated wiring into working. He got involved with the children and families, attending a wedding, sorting out arguments, and comforting troubled kids. He learned about daily power outages and the role of bribes in conducting business.

Pagels kept a blog documenting the experience but found he was unable to compose his final entry. “I just didn't know what to say after it was all over,” he admits. “There was so much going on for me that I couldn't express what I felt and thought about the whole experience.”

He does know that the experience will affect his parenting style. “Those kids played cards with half a deck and had fun,” he says. “The kids here are surrounded by computers, games, and toys, and they still say they're bored.”

A modern “Renaissance man,” Pagels is also trying to sort out how his interests, his education, and his experience in India can be integrated into a meaningful career goal. He is interested in music, art, silver-smithing, and running, and he is being trained as an engineer.

“I think I want to be a professor after I get my doctorate,” he says, “and work abroad so that I can help to disseminate knowledge about engineering where it's not currently accessible.”

Click here to read Pagels's blog and view more of the photos he took during his stay in India.

Article by Diane Kukich