Extraordinary Journey

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Extraordinary Journey

Sunday, 09 August 2020 | MUSBA HASHMI

Extraordinary Journey

We all dream, but only a handful are able to make them come true. MUSBA HASHMI catches up with young guns who have made it from a village to top global universities, all because of talent, a hunger to learn and their fierce determination

Tomorrow’s leader

She is bold, fearless and a rebel.  Following ageold regressive traditions was not her cup of tea and that is why at a very young age, she ushered a revolution in her village. In her village where the word menstruation was taboo and was was even rarely allowed into personal thoughts, she decided to create awareness on the subject and teach women the importance of menstrual hygiene. And if you picture her as a middle-aged woman or someone like Shakuntala Devi, you are wrong.

Meet Shikoh Zaidi, a 16-year-old student and resident of Kuwarpur Baghel village in UP’s Hardoi district. Zaidi’s determination, paired with the hard work of teachers from VidyaGyan, Sitapur, a differently enabled school for the underprivileged, has earned her admission to the prestigious Georgetown University in Qatar all expenses and paid.

“I am glad to have gotten the opportunity to study abroad. It is a dream come true for me,” Zaidi says.

However, sending Zaidi to a foreign land didn’t sit well with her family, which feared how she would manage everything all by herself at such a young age.

“My family was initially apprehensive about sending me to Qatar, especially my father who believed I was too young for it. It took me a couple of months persuade them to support me in this once in a lifetime opportunity and that I did not want to let go of,” Zaidi, who has been a student of VidgyaGyan from Class VI, tells you.

Zaidi is all praise for her teachers because of whom, she says, she has got the opportunity.

“There was a time when I had withdrawn my name from the list of students shortlisted to study abroad. I was unable to handle the pressure, not that anyone was pressurising me to pass the exam, but I thought that my focus would shift from Boards to this. Maths has been my weak point and I was not able to concentrate on it. I told my principal that I didn’t want to be a part of that and she said that it’s fine. I felt relieved,” she recalls.

But destiny had its plans for Zaidi. “After a few days, I was able to tackle the problematic topics in maths. One day, our principal called me again and asked if that was my final decision. She made me realise what I was missing. I understood her, gained back confidence and went on to give the final exam for selection,” Zaidi tells you.

Breaking societal stereotypes and questioning the norms got imbibed in Zaidi since she was merely six years old.

“The gender discrimination didn’t sit well with me. I often questioned my mother but got no satisfactory answers. When I grew up, I went to VidyaGyaan where I became a part of an altogether different atmosphere. Whenever I visited my house during vacations, I felt the need to create awareness in my village regarding gender equality. But what I found the most disturbing was lack of menstrual hygiene practises,” she tells you.

Zaidi tried talking to a friend about the matter but she was reluctant.

“I tried to convince her that this is natural and nothing to feel ashamed of, but to no avail. Then I thought of organising workshops in the village about menstrual hygiene. When I told my mother about my plans she thought that  I was going nuts. She said that it doesn’t look nice when girls talk about these things. I was asked to keep quiet. Then, I went to my father and he agreed in one go. The next step was to implement my plan,” she tells you.

But that was not all. The other challenge was to convince women to attend the workshop. “I went door to door to tell people about it. Some laughed it off while others asked what menstruation or periods meant. I tried talking to them, but they all had tons of excuses of not being able to make it to the workshop. I started losing hope as the ones who would benefit from it were not even interested to attend it. But my father asked me to never give up and he accompanied me to their houses. That’s how we were able to have a few women in the workshop,” she tells you.

The second workshop worked much better and more women were interested to be a part of it. “In the second workshop, I had two boys with me from my neighbourhood. This made the girls uncomfortable, but they soon realised that it was no big deal. Now a lot of women in my village use sanitary napkins and those who can’t afford it, know the importance of cloth hygiene,” she says.

Zaidi’s bold initiative was often attacked with nasty taunts from some women, but that did not stop her from treading the difficult path.

“Some people called us names. They spread rumours about us and tell people that my sisters and I are not decent girls, but I go by my father’s words and ignore them. I am focused in life and I want to do more good for society,” she tells you.

If one is to wonder, from where Zaidi gets confidence and inspiration, it is because of her teachers, Mahatma Gandhi and Meghan Markle.

“My teachers always tell me to not fear anyone and never shy away from speaking the truth. I also read a lot of books on Mahatma Gandhi and his journey and spirit have inspired me a lot. Another idol that has inspired me to become a strong woman is Meghan Markle. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is an example for everyone who doubts his capabilities,” she tells you.

Zaidi’s goal is to become an usher of positive change in the lives of the less privileged and she has already crossed some milestones in reaching her goal.

‘Make every opportunity count however small’

Another bright student of VidyaGyan who has made it to Cornell University, US after scoring 98.2 per cent in Class XII Boards is an 18-year-old Anurag Tiwari, a resident of Parasan Village in Lakhimpur district, Uttar Pradesh.

Tiwari got admission in VidyaGyan, Sitapur in 2013 and since then his life has changed for the better. “I got to know about VidyaGyan when I was studying in primary school in my village through my brother, who was a teacher there. With the help of his guidance and my hard work I was able to crack the entrance exam,” Tiwari tells you.

But things didn’t go very smoothly. The challenges came after the admission.

“Initially, things were a bit difficult, the medium of speaking was English there and I was studying in Hindi. I thought that it would be very difficult for me to adjust in the environment.  When I saw other children conversing in fluent English, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to survive here, but with time, when I touched base with my seniors, I got to know that they all have come from similar backgrounds and with an urge to learn, they got hold of the language. This gave me a lot of confidence and with time I got accustomed to living away from home and comfortable in speaking in English,” he says.

He tells you that gradually his perception towards education changed too. “Earlier, I was forced to believe that to get a good score, get a degree and a job was the sole purpose of education. But at VidyaGyan, I got to see a much larger perspective. The school wants students to develop skills, to be independent, do things by themselves, and learn to do that practically. The method of teaching is different and students are encouraged to take part in many activities beyond studies. The students who are good at sports, they take part in sports, children who are good in extracurricular activities, they are encouraged to be a part of those activities depending upon their interest,” he tells you.

Like any other parent, Tiwari’s parents too were apprehensive about sending their child to a foreign country. “Initially, they were reluctant to send me to the US. They were worried about how I would return. My father got to know that it is very cold there and it added to his worries. I told my parents that Cornell is one of the best universities in the world and showed them some pictures. I made them realise that getting scholarships to study abroad that too with a top university is not easy.  I assured them that I will take proper care of myself and that it is safe. That’s when they agreed and gave me a go ahead,” he tells you.

The opportunity is no less than a dream for Tiwari, who without the financial aid wouldn’t have imagined even a trip to a foreign country let alone study.

“My father is a farmer and mother is a homemaker. I have three elder sisters. Since my childhood, I have learnt to not demand anything because I don’t come from a financially strong family. There was a time when we were only able to meet basic necessities. My father was not able to give us good education. I used to watch other children go to fancy schools, but I learnt  to be satisfied and make do with what I had. I always thought that if I could get an opportunity, I would make full use of it. This has been a breakthrough,” Tiwari tells you.

His goal is to become an economist and return to India to help the children who are deprived of education. “As of now, I will be pursuing my undergrad in economics and mathematics and focus on studies to get a good job. I want to be an economist and come back to help children who seek opportunities to fulfil their dreams. Had I not got this opportunity; I would have been living a normal life. I would like to help children with such opportunities, even if I am able make a small contribution that could make a big difference in their lives I would be happy,” he says. Tiwari has advise for all those who fear to dream because of financial constraints.

“Never stop dreaming as you never know when they can come true. When life gives you an opportunity, however small, make full use of it. If you are fortunate enough to get education don’t just study to get marks, develop skills to be independent and to be able to stand on your feet and spread happiness in your society and for yourself,” he tells you.

Taking the uncoventional route

The list of these young achievers is never ending. Zaidi and Tiwari are not lone cases, there is more. Sagar Rathi, a student of VidyaGyan, Bulandshahr with 88 per cent in Class XII is also heading to Georgetown University,  Qatar. However, this is not the first time Rathi is going to study abroad. His last study trip, also his first one was to the US in 2017 as part of a student exchange programme.

Though Rathi is well-versed with the know-hows of studying in a foreign university, but going once  again and for a longer period gives him goosebumps.

“I am extremely excited to go to Georgetown University. It definitely feels amazing to study in a different land as one gets to experience different cultures and is able to see the larger picture of the world,” Rathi says.

Coming from a family of farmers, it was difficult for Rathi to convince his parents to send him abroad. “Everyone in my family is into farming. Even my elder brother helps my father in the job. I turned out to be the black sheep of the family. Even my sister, she is pursuing MSc, so we — brother-sister duo are doing a good job of breaking the family traditions and chasing our dreams,” he says.

What brings Rathi to VidyaGyan was the fact that the school has larger-than-life campus, a variety of sports and even foreign exchange programmes.

“I love sports. I came to know about how good the campus is through a friend. I was fascinated by the whole idea of foreign exchange programmes. That’s when I thought that I have to make it to the school and fortunately I cracked the entrance exam and got the admission,” he tells you.

Once reaching the university, apart from academics, Rathi wishes to join the Qatar football team one day. “I want to be a part of their football team. I love the sport and would work hard to make it come true,” he tells you.

Before securing admission in Georgetown University, Rathi’s application was rejected once, and that, he says, was the most challenging time for him.

“After I got rejected, all my hopes went down. I was left disheartened. I kept thinking what went wrong and was convinced that I would not be able to go abroad. For atleast three months, I struggled with the fear of failure and then fortunately I got selected for Georgetown University. However,  my friend Shiva, supported me a lot during the phase,” he tells you.

After seeing Rathi’s journey with the school and what education can do to a human being, a lot more children of his village got motivated to go to schools.

“Children now are more motivated than ever to go to any school, if not VidyaGyan. They are interested to learn things and explore the world,” he tells you.

Rathi has a message for those who think they can’t excel in academics. “One just has to believe in himself. Self-confidence is the key. You have to figure out your plus point, it is not only about academics, a student can be good at sports while the other can possess excellent communication skills, one just has to figure out his talent and start pursuing it. Also like people say hard work always pay off,” he says.

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