‘There were times when I would have an exam, maybe it would be two or three hours long, but I would be held outside the hall for an hour because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees on time. The teachers shouldn’t really have let me take the exams at all, but because my siblings and I were so obedient and driven and academically outstanding I think they wanted us to do well.’
Usually, you hear Archana Verma before you see her. She has one of the loudest and most wonderfully infectious laughs of anyone I know. My memories of her from our paths crossing at Pestalozzi were of someone full of hope, determination and wholehearted kindness. Two and a half years later, the girl who greets me on the steps of her dormitory at the University of Rochester in New York is still very much alive with the same positive energy.
Originally from Pokhara in central Nepal, Archana comes from a family of six, with her parents only income coming from running a café out of their home, selling tea. Any money they received from this was put towards the education of their children and it was a big financial strain on the family to try and put all four siblings through school. It was during this time that one of her teachers realised how much she was struggling to stay in education and suggested that she apply for support for her secondary education from the PestalozziWorld organisation. She was selected and lived in Dehradun, India while attending Brightlands School and says without this opportunity she wouldn’t have been able to continue her education.
The ability to study without the worry of paying school fees saw Archana go from strength to strength in her academics and it was then that she recalls one of her teachers nominating her for the Pestalozzi scholarship in the UK because of her exceptional academic record and her obvious financial need. She remembers the exams and interview process for Pestalozzi very clearly and knew what a life changing opportunity it could be for her. A month later, her housemother called her school and said she had to speak to her about something very important. Archana had no idea what it would be about and was slightly worried on the bus journey home. Unable to contain the news waiting for her to arrive back, her house mother called the bus driver to tell Archana on her way home. She told me when she finally understood what was going on she just cried and cried.
Throughout her time at Pestalozzi, Archana threw herself into as many activities as she could including dancing at cultural events and volunteering as President for the Eco Club where she led a vegetable growing scheme in our greenhouse. In 2017, after completing her A Levels in Maths, Further Maths and Chemistry, Archana returned to Nepal for a gap year, which she reflects on as a time of huge personal growth. During this time she volunteered at her old school in India, running a recycling project and helping to implement a waste management system. She says much of what she shared with them was from the skills and knowledge she had gained during her time at Pestalozzi, particularly as the Eco Club President. As well as this, she spent one and a half months volunteering for an NGO, Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group Dewats, looking into their decentralised water treatment system. She learnt how the system worked to treat water coming from households and sewer pipe lines so it could be used for irrigation. She also interviewed people on the benefits of the system. ‘People rely heavily on cultivation for their livelihood and so they need water and sometimes there is no rainfall’. She wrote a 35 page report on it for the organisation.
After these volunteering placements, Archana returned to Nepal to assist her family with their financial situation. She quickly secured a job working with IELTS (the International English Language Testing System) and the money she received went straight to her mother for medicine and housekeeping. She told me that at first she had been worried about teaching as she was so young and worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously, but soon the people she tutored saw how good she was and respected her command over the English language.
Many of the students we select at Pestalozzi show a particular kind of resilience against adversity and I really recognised this in hearing Archana’s story of trying to hold down a job, deal with difficult family issues and trying to support them financially, whilst also applying for university.Yet with all of this going on, she managed to obtain a place at the University of Rochester in New York state, with the offer of a full scholarship.
‘I realised if I had good education I could change my situation at home. We had no money for my mum to go to the hospital and to afford the things my parents need. I wanted to make a difference for my family. My mum never had an education. The fact that I am now receiving an education is also important as it means I won’t be married off at this age. There are still people who think marriage is the sole purpose for a woman in Nepal and I want to prove them wrong. I want to show people that with opportunities, women can be better than men in the similar field. I want to show I am more than a housewife and I want to be a role model for girls back in Nepal’.
Archana is now in her second year at the university and will soon be declaring her major in Biomedical Engineering, with a minor in Chemistry. Her goal is to become an expert within the medical field, as well as building a hospital specifically for the poorer people in her village to be able to attend for lower fees. She told me ‘A lot of people don’t go to hospital in Nepal because the fee is so high, so I want to play a part in changing this’. She is also interested in working in medicine within the navy, something my colleagues and I at Pestalozzi always found amusing from someone who comes from a landlocked country.
When I asked her about her most meaningful experience at Pestalozzi, her response was this:
‘Pestalozzi UK gave me a glimpse of the world outside of India and Nepal. I was pushed to do things other than academics, I became confident speaking in public, I was the Eco Club president, I ran the half marathon, went to see a musical and even went on a rollercoater, all things I had never done before and never had the chance to do. I really tried to push myself out of my comfort zone. I also had the chance to see a counsellor at Pestalozzi and the staff there really cared from me. It was a home away from home and I miss the events where we would all gather together from all over the world. Without the Pestalozzi scholarship, I would have had to apply for more scholarships in Nepal or India, which is very competitive and there’s less chance of being selected’.
‘I am also thankful for all of the struggles emotionally and academically I went through because they made me who I am today. I feel strong now. Being in the UK also helped me to adjust to moving to Rochester much more easily than the transition was for other international students’.
Over the next year, Archana is hoping to open a Nepali club at Rochester as well as making more time for swimming and volleyball and continuing with her taekwondo practice, where she is the business manager for the university club. She also intends to undertake research in HIV and Cancer (Rochester is world renowned for these studies) coming up with antidotes to fight viruses and cancer because she lost someone close to her because of this.
For many of the alumni I met whilst in America, I was often only been able to steal snippets of time from their busy schedules. However, Archana hosted me for my stay in Rochester and it gave me a much deeper insight into her life here. The person I got to know is someone deeply committed to learning and improving her academics, but even more so committed to the wellbeing and happiness of those around her.
‘My time at Pestalozzi was life changing and eye-opening. Pestalozzi continuing in partnership with UWC means it will still be able to change people’s lives and expose them to opportunities they would have never had in their home countries. The education system in Nepal and India is limited to books and theories that you don’t even look outside the book. The UK made learning meaningful for me’.
‘Receiving an education from Pestalozzi also means it’s natural that I now want to give back. I feel so thankful because it contributed so much to who I am today. If I have a chance to do that for someone else I would lovingly do it. People selflessly did it for me and I want to do the same’.
Finally, her advice for our current cohort of scholars studying at Atlantic College is for them to try out new things.
‘Don’t be limited by what you’ve done before. Take risks, as it makes your experience meaningful and if you don’t try new things it doesn’t make sense to have left your country. Hard times will be there, life isn’t meant to be easy but don’t give up, talk to people if you’re having emotional or academic difficulties as Pestalozzi will be there to support you’.