DHANAURI MAFI, Uttar Pradesh -- Manvi Chaudhury speaks with a heavy American accent.
The 18-year-old is the daughter of a farmer and homemaker in western Uttar Pradesh, and the eldest of four children. She is also the first in a village of over 2,000 people to go abroad to study. Manvi has been offered a full scholarship from Wellesley College in Massachusetts to study in their undergraduate program.
"I am excited about everything," Manvi says in her soft voice, when asked what is she looking forward to the most. Dressed in a green t-shirt that says "NYC", Manvi is at her house in the outskirts of Dhanauri Mafi village, where she lives with her parents and three siblings. As she sits on a charpoy surrounded by her extended family and two bullocks who live in a shed inside the courtyard of the house, there is an excited buzz in the air. Her face constantly splits into a wide grin as she speaks--made all the more endearing thanks to her attempt to keep a straight face. "Everything is exciting."
Manvi's family's annual income is less than ₹100,000 ($1,800). A single year's tuition and boarding in Wellesley--one of the best liberal arts colleges in USA--is $66,984 by the college's own estimates. The college--ranked number three among the liberal arts colleges in USA--will pay $75,000 annually towards Manvi's tuition and living expenses for the next four years.
The enormity of Manvi's achievement is not lost on her family. "She is making our name shine," her father Brijpal says. "Everyone knows me now as Manvi's father." There is a steady stream of visitors and well-wishers at their residence excited to see her off before she leaves later this month. Manvi is something of a legend around here.
And with good reason. Female literacy in Uttar Pradesh is 59.26%, which is 19.98 percentage points lower than male literacy, according to the 2011 Census. However, in the state's villages, less than four out of every 10 girls are enrolled in schools, and more than half of them drop out of school after class 10. Most of them are married before they are 18 years old.
"Everyone knows me now as Manvi's father."
Many of Manvi's friends from her village are already married, or will be, soon. While most of them completed their primary school education, Manvi says, they abandoned their schooling to tend to domestic chores or help with household income. A handful completed their schooling to go to college nearby. How did Manvi's path change from theirs? It all began with primary school.
Each day after coming home from the local government school, Manvi would practise what she was taught that day on a wooden slab with her mother, Sunita Devi. "I didn't study much when I was her age but I wanted my daughter to get the best education," Sunita, now 35, tells HuffPost India. "There are more opportunities for girls now."
Sunita wanted to send Manvi to a good school, but it was a luxury that they weren't ready for. So, Manvi went to the local government school, which was walking distance from their home. Teachers wouldn't always take classes, and when they did, the quality of teaching was poor, Manvi explains.
Yet, she persevered, and got top marks in all her classes. When she was in class 5, her father filled out an application for a new privately-run school that was looking for its first batch of students from low-income families. VidyaGyan, a residential school run by the Shiv Nadar Foundation (run by the family of the founder of HCL Technologies), was opening its first facility that year, in 2009, to help gifted students from rural areas of Uttar Pradesh achieve their potential. Manvi was among the 10 students chosen from her district--Amroha--who secured admission in the school in Bulandshahr.
Manvi's parents didn't have to pay any fees for her schooling--VidyaGyan takes all its students for free and gives them food, lodging, healthcare, uniforms, and other essential school supplies. The only catch is that the parents have to leave their children completely under the care of the school authorities, and not demand to meet them and disrupt their education while the school is in session.
"I was so scared they would kidnap my daughter," Sunita recalls. "It happens, you know."
However, six months later, when Manvi came home for her winter break, Sunita remembers noticing a sea change in her daughter. "She was so confident," Sunita says. "After that I didn't worry."
Manvi's progress at VidyaGyan was speedy. From speaking a few words in English, she was soon conversing confidently in the language. While continuing to do well in her studies, she excelled in basketball, and played handball at the state-level. Five years later, in 2014, she was chosen as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program which funded her study for a year in a public high school in Minneapolis.
It was a big break for the teenager. Travelling to the USA opened up the world for her, she recalls. "Everyone was really nice," she says. It's where she got her American accent--she was speaking in English all the time--and that year, while travelling to various college campuses, she decided she wanted to study abroad.
"Earlier, I dreamed of finishing high school and going to college somewhere," she says. "But after that year I started dreaming of doing more."
On her return to India, she completed her last two years of high school (she had to study class 11 in India as well, despite doing a school year abroad). Last year, she spoke at the Global Citizen India Festival in Mumbai about her experiences and the potential of Indian village girls as future leaders. The 18-year-old shared the stage with Google's India head, the UNDP country head and celebrities from Bollywood. Later, she watched the band Coldplay perform at the festival.
"But after that year I started dreaming of doing more."Manvi
Earlier this year, Manvi secured admission in several colleges in New York and Massachusetts, including Wellesley. She left her village last week to study international relations and economics in the women's college. She was already in touch with some of her future classmates on Facebook before she left India, and knows that her roommate is a girl from Indiana. Her classes begin next week.
Manvi hopes to be a diplomat and work for the United Nations someday.
Her success has helped spread awareness in the village, and parents and children often come to Manvi and her parents, seeking advice on how to follow in her path.
Manvi's stunning trajectory has encouraged her parents to put all three of her younger siblings in good schools too. Sixteen-year-old Mohini is studying at a school 40 kilometres away--highly unusual for a girl child--and Jatin, 13, goes to a Sikh inter-college. Ten-year-old Ashi, the youngest, is at a junior high school nearby.
"We tell everyone that we do not treat sons and daughters differently," says Brijpal. "Why should girls stay behind? They are doing everything nowadays."
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