Vaishali Dhariwal grew up in one of the poorest homes in rural Uttar Pradesh, and could have, like other young girls in her village, been married off by now. Instead, the 18-year-old started her undergraduate education this fall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
"I'm really excited," the Moradabad-raised teenager told HuffPost India. "This is going to be a really amazing experience." She is expected to major in political science and economics, and her education and living expenses will be facilitated by the Shiv Nadar Foundation as well as the university.
When Dhariwal, in 2009, joined the then newly-opened boarding school VidyaGyan run by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, little did she know how dramatically it would change her life. At the time, Dhariwal was among 200 students who were identified from underprivileged families in rural UP by the Foundation at the time to study there. The school, now in its seventh year of existence, provides free education to students, while the Foundation pays for all their living expenses, books, uniforms, medical insurance and other essentials.
Admission to the school is not easy, and competition for the seats is harder each passing year. Out of roughly 250,000 students who apply annually, 200 students (and sometimes less) are selected.
Drop-outs are minimal; and earlier this year, Dhariwal and 186 of her classmates who were part of the school's founding batch, wrote the CBSE class 12 examinations. Not a single child failed, and 139 of them scored over 80%; a better average than most private schools in metropolitan cities can claim. In Uttar Pradesh, the literacy rate is less than 70% on average.
Most of Dhariwal's classmates started college this academic year in the country's best universities—Delhi University's St. Stephen's College, Hindu College, Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) or in Jamia Millia Islamia, the National Institutes of Technology (NIT), National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Banaras Hindu University, and Aligarh Muslim University among others. Some, like Dhariwal, went abroad. Four of her classmates are headed soon to study at the London College of Fashion.
Seven years ago, they would have never thought it possible.
'I Cried A Lot'
Though Dhariwal would later regard VidyaGyan as her "second home", it was not as easy at first. Despite her initial excitement to study in a fancy school with limitless resources, two days away from home brought the-then 11-year-old to tears. "The first few weeks I cried a lot," she recalled. "But after I made a few friends, it became better."
The first time she returned home that year, six months later on a winter break, she told all her friends in the village to study really hard and join her school. In the village, her old school had three teachers for all the students in five different grades. Classes were irregular, and were many times combined even though the students were far apart in age and education, she recalled. In VidyaGyan, by contrast, she "really learnt how to study", she said.
One of the biggest changes in herself, she found, was she learnt to read English. "I got to know a language," she said, the awe in her voice clear. "I could read many books."
She took part in competitions, growing more confident of herself each time. She recognised these as developments in her life that might not have happened if her father, himself a teacher at a local school, had not been urged by the school principal to send her to VidyaGyan.
'Thank You For Not Letting Me Leave'
Her feelings are echoed by her classmate Shikha Sirohi, who topped the school with a 96.6% score in the CBSE exams. Sirohi, who has joined LSR to study psychology honours, was a late admission to the school—she joined about six weeks after the academic session had already begun in 2009. The daughter of a farmer and a homemaker from Bulandshahr did not want to stay away from her parents, but when a seat opened up in the school, Sirohi, who was first on the wait list, was sent off to study.
"It was for the first time I had stepped out of home without my mother," she told HuffPost India. For months she tried to plead with VidyaGyan principal, Bishwajit Banerjee, to let her go back home. "But Principal sir did not allow," she said. "I felt very bad, and I said no matter what you say I will not complete my seven years here. But sir did not allow. When I went home in winter holidays, I tried telling my parents but principal sir was better at convincing them."
Years later, when Sirohi was in high school, she would thank Banerjee profusely for not letting her leave.
Both Dhariwal and Sirohi said that many girls their age at their villages had stopped going to school by class 10 or 12, and some were married off. By contrast, Sirohi's parents let her get as much education as she wanted. "I wouldn't have got this freedom if I had stayed in my village school," she said.
With the success of the school's efforts, more students apply each year, making the process extremely competitive. The school management is careful to admit only the number of students they can give qualitative attention to.
Girls are given preference, and efforts are made to maintain a minimum ratio of four girls to every six boys in the batch. Only families that earn less than ₹1 lakh every year from all sources of income are eligible to send their children for the admission test.
About 1,900 students from underprivileged families in 75 districts of rural Uttar Pradesh are taught in two campuses, in Bulandshahr and Sitapur.
"In UP there are 5 million children," principal Banerjee told HuffPost India. "We cannot bring a mass change so we do creative philanthropy by training leaders for tomorrow."
Leaders like Dhariwal, who hopes someday to join the United Nations. "I think it's a great organisation and does great work," she said. "I can contribute to the world that way."
But that's a long way off. For now, the 18-year-old is excited to have taught her father to use Skype, and plans to stay in touch with her family over WhatsApp with the smartphone they have got for this very purpose.
Is she nervous? Perhaps, but it doesn't show. She already knows there will be five colleges nearby, and it will be very cold. Instead, the 18-year-old is more concerned about her parents. "My mother is a bit nervous, but my father is okay," she said. "But I have convinced them."
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