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Doctor Builds School On The Same Land Where He Used to Work As a Daily Wage Labourer

Growing up without access to quality education and opportunities, Dr Pradeep Sethi wanted to change the future for kids in his village in Odisha. The Utkal Gaurav International School is his gift to his people.

Doctor Builds School On The Same Land Where He Used to Work As a Daily Wage Labourer

Nine-year-old Sharmishtha is dancing in the living room of her home in Berunapadi village, Odisha. As she pauses between the beats of the music to perfect her moves, her parents watch on, with pride etched on their faces. 

“My daughter is number one in class,” her father declares. “Not just in dance but also studies,” he adds. 

The home has several clues to Sharmishtha’s love for reading – English story books, school textbooks and the likes. Not long ago, her parents would be amused if they were told that their daughter would one day be studying at an English medium school, let alone an international one. These luxuries were unheard of in the village. 

But, today, they beam with pride watching their little girl string together sentences in English; reading and writing as fluently as she converses. And she is only getting started. 

Currently a student at the ‘Utkal Gaurav International School’, Sharmishtha has found the launchpad for her dreams in the curriculum here. “I want to grow up to be a software engineer,” she smiles. With world-class education backing her, there is nothing to hinder this goal. 

As for her parents, they are elated that an opportunity this surreal is happening for their daughter and at zero cost. 

However, the story might seem too good to be true. 

Dr Pradeep Sethi is a leading hair transplant surgeon who has started the Utkal Gaurav International School,
Dr Pradeep Sethi is a leading hair transplant surgeon who has started the Utkal Gaurav International School, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

But as Dr Pradeep Sethi — a leading hair transplant surgeon and the “angel” for many parents in the Berunapadi village whose children found hope in his school — tells The Better India, these young minds deserve every opportunity they can get. Once a daily wage labourer who toiled in the fields around his village to make money to pay his MBBS fees, Dr Sethi never fathomed the turn his life would take. 

Born into a poor family, Dr Sethi relied on the kindness of strangers who encouraged him to dream big. He shares, “Our village and state were not very prosperous when I was growing up. They were lagging behind in terms of infrastructure and civilisation. But despite that, I was surrounded by humble people.” 

Recalling his childhood, he speaks of days when the family went without food; wore the same sets of clothes for weeks, and put school on the back burner when work demanded. 

“Who else would take the cows to graze and cut the weeds in the field?” Refusing to resign to this life of hardship, Dr Sethi decided to channel his energies into the one thing that he enjoyed best — studying. 

The government residential school he began attending when he was 12 years old shaped much of his future. “It was a semi-English medium school,” he elaborates. 

“It was here that I was exposed to Hindi and English for the first time. My teachers were great and motivating,” he adds. With this conducive atmosphere that fostered learning, Sethi reached the heights of academic excellence, passing his Class 10 and 12 board exams with flying colours. 

While the mindset back then was to pursue a well-paying government job, Dr Sethi harboured a different dream.  

The Utkal Gaurav International School is a passion project by Dr Pradeep Sethi for the underprivileged children of Odisha
The Utkal Gaurav International School is a passion project by Dr Pradeep Sethi for the underprivileged children of Odisha, Picture source: Dr Pradeep
The children studying at the Utkal Gaurav International School do not pay fees, while getting access to world-class education
The children studying at the Utkal Gaurav International School do not pay fees, while getting access to world-class education, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

‘I wanted to be a doctor.’ 

The next few years were a blur for the family. Their assets were sold to collect money for Dr Sethi’s medical fees, while he used all his spare time doing daily wage work. His childhood had taught him to be stoic in the face of adversity. 

When times get tough, fate steps in is what the 19-year-old believed. True to this, he recalls how a few people from the village decided to offer him a scholarship for his academic excellence. The amount helped ease the family’s financial woes. 

“I used to get a monthly amount of Rs 1,300 as part of this scholarship. I would use it for books, mess fees, etc,” he shares. One particular book that Dr Sethi got his hands on during this time, changed his life, in his words. 

The ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramahansa Yogananda not only inculcated the practice of daily meditation in him but also championed the message of doing small acts in extraordinary ways. “Everyone has a greater purpose in life,” the book emphasised. 

“So, I began wondering what mine was,” Sethi shares. 

Dr Pradeep Sethi was closely involved in the entire process right from construction of the school to planning the curriculum
Dr Pradeep Sethi was closely involved in the entire process right from the construction of the school to planning the curriculum, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

In 2004, Dr Sethi completed his MBBS degree and got admission into AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) for his MD. 

He graduated in 2008, trained in the techniques of hair transplant surgery. The years following this saw his career gaining momentum. The who’s who of the world began to reach out to him for a consultation. But the young doctor never forgot his roots. 

As a student, there was one thing that he had craved. Mentorship. It was the determining factor between mediocrity and greatness, he discovered. 

And thus, when at a professional crossroads — Dr Sethi was contemplating between opening a clinic in Dubai and pursuing another stem cell project — he chose a completely different path. He decided to give the youth and children of Odisha the education he had not had the opportunity of getting. 

Prior to founding the Utkal Gaurav International School, he started a coaching centre in his village in 2016. A heartwarming story prequels this. 

The home that Dr Pradeep Sethi had built for his father that was later converted into a coaching centre
The home that Dr Pradeep Sethi had built for his father was later converted into a coaching centre, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

Dr Sethi’s father, who was suffering from stomach cancer, was intent on having a home built in the village. While Dr Sethi decided to fulfil his father’s dream and had a house built within five months, his dad passed away soon after. 

In weeks that followed, the vacant space took on the avatar of a coaching centre where young boys would come to learn spoken English, and Maths. They were trained by teachers from outside the village who were also provided with accommodation. From August 2016 to March 2023, when the school started, the centre saw 300 students being mentored.  

Watching these young boys being given the right guidance and training was gratifying. And this was when a revelation struck Dr Sethi –  if a coaching centre could impact hundreds, why not start a school and impact thousands? 

And that’s where Sharmishtha and many other young girls and boys are finding the right education.  

The school lays a focus on holistic education with academic subjects combined with classes on agriculture, business, industry, etc,
The school lays a focus on holistic education with academic subjects combined with classes on agriculture, business, industry, etc, Picture source: Dr Pradeep
Students at the school are also trained in yoga, dance, art, etc
Students at the school are also trained in yoga, dance, art, etc, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

Utkal Gaurav International School

The only factor separating the underprivileged and the fortunate is opportunity. The state of the art school and uncompromising curriculum are a corollary of this fact. By providing Odisha’s underprivileged with world-class education, Dr Sethi is helping the children leverage their skills and talents in more focused ways. 

The CBSE-affiliated school is unmissable by anyone who passes through the Berunapadi village. With its stately configuration, the school has classes from lower kindergarten to class 12. Currently, 450 children are admitted into the school. Dr Sethi says that in the coming years he plans to increase the intake to 2,000. 

Ironically, the school stands on the same piece of land that Dr Sethi recalls once working on as a labourer

Speaking about its journey, he is insistent that a project of this scope wouldn’t be possible without finances. He mentions Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, as one of his strong supporters among numerous other people who have donated funds to see the project come to fruition. 

At the school, children are encouraged to realise their full potential. Through the ‘Student Enrichment Programme’, coaching is provided to middle school students, pre-placement training is given to high school graduates, and extracurricular activities such as dance, yoga, theatre, and sports are arranged for. 

In addition to this, classes on agriculture, human values, business, and industry are also conducted. 

While staying true to its roots, the curriculum also encourages children to get exposure to a holistic education. Lectures by professors from the United States, Japan, and Britain give the students insights into these respective cultures. 

The Utkal Gaurav International School has classes right from kindergarten to Class 12
The Utkal Gaurav International School has classes right from kindergarten to Class 12, Picture source: Dr Pradeep
The faculty at the Utkal Gaurav International School
The faculty at the Utkal Gaurav International School, Picture source: Dr Pradeep

Call Dr Sethi a philanthropist who has done wonders for his village, and he modestly denies it. “The belief is often that people born with a silver spoon accomplish great things. But that isn’t true. In fact, I call being born poor a fortune. Because if it weren’t for my roots, I wouldn’t aspire for something like this.” 

As sunlight slants through the windows at the Utkal Gaurav International School, it carries with it hope for the underprivileged children of Odisha who study within its walls. 

A hope that all one needs to do is dare to dream. 

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Edited by Padmashree Pande.


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