In a small, nondescript house in B J S Colony in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur, 17-year-old Kusum Chaudhary, with visa in hand, is preparing to fly to the US’ Maryland University to pursue a four-year undergraduate degree in computer science.
Until a few years ago, the future of her education was uncertain. She comes from a farming family that doesn’t own the land they work on, which meant that adequate funds were always lacking. Kusum believed that because of their financial constraints, she wouldn’t have been able to continue her studies beyond Class 12.
“My family couldn’t afford my graduation, so dropping out of school would have been the only option. There’s a lot of work on the fields, so I would not have gotten the time to study either,” she tells The Better India.
Till Class 6, she studied in the local public school. “It was an English medium school but we were not taught in English, the teachers always spoke in Hindi,” she says.
But Class 7 onwards, she was admitted in the Sitare Foundation.
Founded by US-based couple Shilpa and Dr Amit Singhal, the pan-India NGO focuses on providing quality education to children from low-income backgrounds. They provide all financial support — school fees, travel, accommodation, food, and more — for seven years of a child’s education, from classes 6 to 12. The foundation offers partners with esteemed private schools in the city.
Kusum was soon admitted to Jodhpur’s Euro International School. “I was surprised to see such a big school. I learnt how to read, write, and communicate in English,” she says. With support from her teachers and the foundation, Kusum’s world started opening up.
Recognising the power of education
The Singhals recall witnessing firsthand how education can bring generational improvement in families. “I am where I am today only because of education,” says Amit.
While he spent 15 years working as a software engineer at Google, Shilpa has completed a master’s degree in Physics from Binghamton University, and in Computer Science and Engineering from Cornell University. After working as a software engineer for several years, she became a homemaker, before joining Amit in founding the Sitare Foundation.
Amit’s great-grandfather used to repair bicycle punctures on the roadside in UP’s Bulandshahr. “He stuck four bamboo sticks in the ground and put polythene on top of it to save himself from heat and rain,” says Amit.
The only thing he could give his son, Amit’s grandfather, was permission to study. He in turn earned a BA in English and became a teacher. Amit’s father went to IIT Roorkee and became a civil engineer.
Meanwhile, Amit pursued a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Roorkee, a master’s from Minnesota Duluth, and a PhD from Cornell. “I left the country with only a few hundred dollars and two suitcases,” he recalls.
“The only thing every generation gave the next generation was education, and no money.”
Today, the couple are on a mission to give back all that they’ve earned to the cause of education in India. Quitting their jobs, they founded Sitare in 2016. Each student’s education costs $2,000 per year, and the couple pay for this through their personal funds.
“Fundamentally, education is the only sustained way out of poverty. And education is near and dear to our hearts,” says Amit.
The couple realised that money has very little value beyond a certain point. “The only useful thing that one could do with their money is to improve some lives.”
Finding and honing the sitares (stars)
Once the foundation was set up, the couple’s biggest challenge was finding the brightest students so they could offer their help. “Low-income families are living in an information-impoverished environment, not just a money-impoverished environment,” notes Amit.
In the first year, they had about 240 applicants, selecting 50 of them to join Sitare. As their work continued over the years, the word spread, and this year, they’ve received 73,000 applications from entrance exams conducted in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bhopal and Indore, of which 100 were selected for the programme. Selection is based on an aptitude test designed by testing experts at the edtech company Educational Initiatives. So far, they have worked with over 400 children.
But given the background of the students, new challenges have arisen. Girls in particular are often denied the encouraging environment to focus on education because of household responsibilities thrust upon them.
“Since the parents are not educated, they sometimes don’t fully understand the value of education, and don’t give the environment necessary for a child to succeed,” explains Amit.
Between tasks like working on the field, doing chores, or looking after younger siblings, their studies end up taking a backseat. Poverty also means that these kids often live in small, noisy, and crowded homes, where it’s tough to focus on studying.
“In that environment, they are struggling on a day to day basis. We’re giving them education that would allow them to compete with children living in luxury and whose only responsibility is to study,” he adds.
Even for girls who are skilled enough to have made it to Sitare’s programme, there are instances of their parents marrying them off and them having to drop out. “All the social pain shows up in our programme in more ways than one,” says Amit.
For students who stick with the programme, Sitare has also partnered with Sanskriti, The School, in Ajmer, Kids Club School in Jaipur, IES Public School in Bhopal, and The Millennium School in Madhya Pradesh.
For Kusum, Sitare has helped her groom an interest in programming. “At my earlier school, there was no computer lab, so I wasn’t aware that there’s something like programming,” she recalls.
The foundation provided her with a laptop, and after she got used to handling the device, her interest in computers only grew. “Our teachers at Euro introduced us to HTML and Java, as well as working online. I was fascinated by that and decided to pursue it further,” she says.
Today, as she prepares for university, Kusum recalls how her parents, through all the struggles they’ve faced, have always supported her education. “Since she got married, my mother has gone through a lot of difficulties. She’s my inspiration. She didn’t study because her parents didn’t support her. But she wanted me to study and she’s always supported me,” she adds.
“When I look back at my life, if it wasn’t for Sitare Foundation, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my education and would have been working in the fields,” Kusum notes.
Meanwhile, Amit explains, “Their education is supplemented with social and emotional development.” The Sitare staff includes counsellors and city coordinators who make sure the children are doing well socially and emotionally, ensuring all of the child’s needs are met. They also encourage the children to carry on this development among their family and community.
For instance, one student’s mothers reported that after being in the programme for two years, the girl didn’t like seeing her mother use a thumb impression to sign, so she taught her how to write the signature instead.
“After a child completes Class 10, we have to make them world class to compete with all the rich children,” says Amit. For Classes 11 and 12, Sitare runs a residential programme where students live in hostels and focus on studying for exams like JEE, NEET, and CLAT, depending on the subjects they’ve chosen. They also prepare their applications to study in the US.
After seven years of work, their first batch is graduating this year. Besides Kusum, four other students are also preparing to study in the US, all focused on STEM-related degrees, which the foundation encourages. “Because then, the employment probabilities go higher and our job is to make sure they have good earnings, because that’s how they’ll be able to change the future of their own family, and maybe the entire community,” he notes.
Amit says that when the children enter the programme, they don’t even dream big. The most ambitious want to become the teachers they’ve seen in government schools. But Sitare encourages them to step out of their shell and explore a wider world.
Amit and Shilpa are also in the process of launching Sitare University in Madhya Pradesh, where students will be offered free computer science undergraduate education.
Edited by Divya Sethu
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