“I grew up without electricity, roads, or phone,” says Jyoti Pandey who completed her entire education on scholarship. Raised in Parbat, Jyoti took opportunities for education as they came and today it shows. Jyoti works with the World Bank as a Social Protection Specialist.
She wanted to pass these opportunities to students who are in need and this dream led her to co-found the Samaanta Foundation with like-minded friends. “It’s been a decade now,” she states.
What started out as a initiative of personal philanthropy is now an Non-Profit Organisation. The foundation has successfully educated 75 students some of whom are already change-makers and role models for the community. “We select students not only based on their academic performance but also on their willingness to engage with and contribute to society,” shares Jyoti.
In conversation with WOW, Jyoti recalls her days in Parbat, the joy of giving opportunities, and the challenge of fundraising. Excerpts:
Tell us about your early years in Parbat…
A typical, rural upbringing I would say. I grew up listening to the radio, without electricity, roads, or telephones. My dad had a government job as the Secretary of the then Village Development Committee. My mother was very entrepreneurial and worked hard to support the family. I did household chores to help my parents. I have four brothers and I am the only girl. I went to the public school and received a scholarship to attend Budhanilkantha School after I finished my fourth grade.
From village to city life, what was the transition like?
Coming to Kathmandu was a huge transition. Being in an urban setting was very different. Until I was in 9th grade, roads had not reached my village. I wrote letters home to my family.
Things were different but I adapted quickly and made friends. Learning English was a big challenge as I didn’t speak English at all. I just knew the alphabet. During the first few months in school, I didn’t follow much of what was happening in the classroom. By the end of the first year, I passed my exams with decent grades and gradually I did better academically. I was very active in sports and other activities in school. Studying with students from all over the country was a great experience overall, but it was a steep learning curve.
The education of girls in rural areas is not prioritised. What was your experience?
In my family, there wasn’t a question of whether I would go to school or not. My father went to school but my mother did not have the opportunity. So, she was very determined to provide us with a good education. When I was in fourth grade, the school principal suggested my parents that I should take the entrance exam for Budhanilkantha School. The exam was in Baglung and it was the first time I had ever travelled that far from home. I passed the exam and got the scholarship.
In general, gender discrimination was there and if there was a choice between girls and boys, parents often enrolled boys in a private school and the girls in a government school. In fact, my family was very excited about the scholarship and has been very supportive of my education.
Did you complete your entire education on scholarships?
Yes, my entire education was funded by government, individuals or private foundations. I completed SLC from Budhanilkantha School with a government scholarship, followed by another year of support from an individual. Then I received a Pestalozzi scholarship to study the IB Diploma in the UK, another for my Bachelor’s in the US and then another to pursue my Master’s degree in Berlin, Germany.
I was good in school, but I was also lucky to receive these scholarships. Not everybody gets the opportunity and that is something that we try to focus on at Samaanta. It’s not the lack of ability but lack of opportunity that holds back many. Our role is to facilitate access to such opportunities. As part of the fellowship, we enroll fellows in high school in Kathmandu, but we also help them apply for other international scholarships including those to United World Colleges. We help them through the application process, and if selected, with visas, paperwork, and their travel arrangements. We serve as guardians for them.
How did Samaanta Foundation get established?
One of the founding board members was doing his PhD research in a public school in Lalitpur. During his stay there, he came across students who despite having good results in SLC that year, didn’t know if they could continue their education. Some friends got together and decided to support a few students on a personal basis. Students were brought to Kathmandu, where they were enrolled in colleges and placed in private hostels. This was the beginning. As we had further conversations, we recognised that the problem was a recurrent and structural one that requires a more systematic approach. Hence, the Foundation. Providing access to higher education to students, who have potential but not the resources, is the key purpose of Samaanta. We also support their personal growth and overall well-being. In addition to enrolling them in a college, Samaanta covers accommodation, mentorship and other extracurricular activities. These include training on computer skills, communication skills, public speaking and engagement in their community.
One of the principles of Samaanta Foundation is ‘paying it forward’ which makes it different. Could you tell us more?
When I was studying, I got a lot of opportunities and I am where I am because of them. Now, I am in a fairly good place both professionally and financially. I would like to pass on those opportunities to others. So that is the basic idea of paying it forward. It is about passing on the opportunities one has received to those who are in need. And I think our fellows are already embracing that now and are trying to give back in many ways including supporting fundraising, mentorships of junior fellows and active community engagement.
How many fellows has Samaanta supported?
We have supported 75 fellows so far. We recruit them in 11th grade and support them for two years of high school. That is the initial commitment but we support some of the 12th-grade graduates for their Bachelors as well. The first few cohorts have already graduated and a few of them are studying abroad. Currently, we have 40 active fellows and are now enrolling the 11th cohort.
How do you select the students?
We first identify schools, sometimes through our own networks but mainly through our partnership with the Teach for Nepal. They have fellows who teach at the schools in many districts. We ask the TFN fellows to nominate 2-3 students from each school. The nominated candidates take a written exam, interview and we also collect references. We select based on academic excellence and their socio-economic backgrounds. The third criterion is leadership potential and social commitment.
We get students from many districts outside the valley but we are far from reaching the entire country. However, that’s the ambition, to grow and recruit students from all over the country. This year we interviewed 101 students from 11 districts.
What is the cost for one fellowship?
It costs an average of Rs two lakhs per person per year in high school. Almost half of that is hostel fees. The other half is tuition, stationery and additional activities including training. The actual cost varies a lot depending on which college they go to and which subject they study. For Bachelors, the cost is higher, at about Rs three lakhs per year per person.
What are the challenges you face while running Samaanta?
There are several challenges. We are a very small organisation with only two staff. We have been able to function only because board members have been actively engaged on a day-to-day basis. The main issue is funding. The fellowship is expensive and fundraising has been very challenging. If we have more funds, we can reach more students and increase our staffing. However, fundraising itself requires resources. Finding mentors who are willing and available for fellows has been another challenge.
The qualities of Samaanta fellows that inspire you…
Their resilience. Watching their transformation to confident young adults has been very rewarding. Many are already looked up to as role models in their communities. The recent exhibition demonstrates their confidence, resourcefulness and their commitment to pay it forward.