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After Finding Girls in ‘Flowing Sewage,’ This Woman Built a School

rashmi-mishra.jpgImage: Rashmi Misra, Founder of VIDYA

Rashmi Misra went from lecturing university students in India to teaching girls who spent their days playing in sewage. How she made that leap is an inspiring tale of what happens when someone decides to help make others’ lives better.

Misra is the founder of Vidya, an organization dedicated to empowering less privileged children, youth and women in India. Vidya includes a system of three schools in Goa, Mumbai, and Delhi whose entire mission is to educate less privileged children in the way that works best for them.

Her journey to bring education to those who cannot access it, often due to crippling poverty throughout her home country of India, happened one day when she took the time to notice her surroundings.

She had been a German teacher for over a decade before she was inspired to found Vidya. Her husband was a professor at the time, teaching at the India Institute of Technology (IIT), one of the most prestigious engineering universities in Delhi. Often Misra would visit her husband at the technical institute's fortress which blocked out the surrounding slums of the city.  

“One day I was just walking past the school from behind my house and I came across a river of ever-flowing sewage, and there were these little kids in it — girl children,” Misra told Global Citizen.

She asked herself what any Global Citizen would — why are these girls not in school?

The response she got when she asked the same question of the little girls playing in the dirty water was essentially, “Duh! Only boys go to school.” These girls, who had grown up in the slums and in poverty had considered school an unattainable privilege only bestowed upon boys.

It was this moment that led Misra to change her course of action. It didn’t take long.

“I was zapped! I didn’t sleep for two nights. I went back the next day and found them playing again and said, ‘How would you like to study?’” she recalled.

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Slowly there formed a group of five or six girls that followed Rashmi to her home everyday, where she taught them English, singing and math. In no time, the group of five or six transformed into 20, and has grown exponentially ever since.

Since that moment years ago, Misra turned a small gathering of eager-to-learn girls dwelling in the slum near IIT into three successful schools. She has had students graduate from MIT, and go on to pursue their dreams in any and every field. Many of the students at Vidya schools excel and dream of being engineers.

Rashmi had one student, a boy who was working driving in the Himalayas, who dreamed of being an engineer. She told him it would take four years. He told her he would do it two. Now that same boy has had offers from MIT and top tech companies in Silicon Valley. More impressively, he has paid it forward. He provides scholarships for children from his home to attend Vidya, and for those who can’t attend he built a school in his village.

After whisperings of the success of Vidya students became louder, Misra was asked if she would open the schools up to “more privileged” students.

She struggled with the idea. She did not want to exclude any children from learning, yet she wanted the school to remain a place where less privileged children could truly feel nurtured and be comfortable expressing their ideas safely. She understood children with less access, in conflict regions, or growing up in extreme poverty, needed extra support for education. So Misra choose the latter.

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Going to school doesn’t change everything right away for these children. Many of them continue to live in slums or on the street, sleeping on floor and sharing a crowded room. Electricity and proper nutrition at home can be a challenge. Misra requires students come to school clean, and try their hardest. If they need a tutor Vidya makes it happen.

Misra had a brainchild that led to one of Vidya’s best qualities. The schools work with students and parents to teach children not just reading and writing, but core values that many people don’t learn until much later in life. Values, like global citizenship, are something that, if taught earlier, Misra believes could change the world.

“The world would be marvelous, each child would be proud of their home, themselves, and proud of being a caring human wanting to help others,” Misra said.

Misra says this is testament to the school’s holistic philosophy to educate, empower and transform less privileged children to become positive and contributing citizens in society but to aspire to their highest goals.

“If you have an education there is nothing stopping you in the world from being whomever you want to be. Every dream a person has can be possible. It doesn’t matter where you are from, you can work and succeed,” said Misra.

Today, Vidya holds true to its roots. The schools remain a space for children living on street and below the poverty line, to get one of the best quality educations in India. There is one change to their lives: opportunity to bridge the inequality gap.

“India is the land of contrast, we have the very rich and we have the very poor. [But] Vidya is the bridge, that brings people, who are privileged, at least to meet and connect with another person.”

Katherine Curtiss contributed to interview research for this piece.