Teenagers of KOTH GAUN, Nepal

KOTH GAUN, Nepal — It is not the easiest of villages to find: Up a narrow dirt road full of hairpin turns, which turns into an even narrower walking path, there are severe drop-offs on one side, with sweeping views of the Katmandu Valley and hilly farmland on the other. Another steep rocky dirt path to the right of the water pump finally leads to this tiny hamlet of Koth Gaun.

Though there is electricity, the toilets are outside and the furniture in the homes consists of straw mats and bamboo stools; goats, chickens and a few cats share the living space. These are not auspicious living conditions for scholars, but this is the place Jeny Shrestha and Jayanta Tamang call home.

The two 18-year-old neighbors used to walk 30 minutes downhill every day to the Bishwamitra Ganesh secondary school, where few children have the opportunity to complete high school after taking the School Leaving Certificate exam at the end of Grade 10, let alone apply to a university.

But thanks to the Samaanta Foundation, a small grassroots nongovernmental organization started in 2012, the two not only finished high school in Katmandu, but they are about to start their university studies as well.

“It was very exciting to be chosen as a fellow,” said Mr. Tamang, who begins studying for a bachelor’s degree in computer programming at Katmandu’s prestigious St. Xavier’s College this month. “I was nervous when I started the Samaanta program but now I am more confident for when I start university.”

Ms. Shrestha, who lives next door and will be starting a bachelor’s degree in business administration, said spending the last two years studying and living in Katmandu had been a life-changing experience for her. “My English improved, my self-confidence, many things,” she said. Both said that they had been the first in their families to attend a university and that this chance was important not only for them, but also for their community. Mr. Tamang’s father, Indra Man Tamang, a subsistence farmer, was very proud. “We are poor so we cannot afford to spend money for studies,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for him.”

Opportunities for higher secondary and university placement do not come easily for students who live in poor and rural communities in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Passing the S.L.C. — a requirement to go on for higher secondary school — is the first barrier. According to Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the total passing rate this year was 43.9 percent, of which 78 percent came from private schools.

Fewer than 30 percent of public school students passed the exams. For those who did pass and who live in poor rural communities, public higher secondary schools are often too far away for a daily commute.

The Higher Secondary Education Board requires private schools to allocate a certain number of seats to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But to benefit from most of these scholarships, students have to live in Katmandu, said Jyoti Pandey, who volunteers as Samaanta’s director of programs and mentorship.

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“There are limited things available here and limited information as to what is available, but even if it is available, it is not comprehensive or substantial enough,” said Ms. Pandey, who works on social exclusion issues at the World Bank in Katmandu. “If it costs 10,000 rupees to go to school and you get 2,000, that doesn’t help. If it is not enough to fully fund your education and does not substitute for all costs, you aren’t going to start at all.” Ten thousand rupees is equivalent to about $100.

The issue of funding was something that motivated the founders of Samaanta, all Nepalese with higher education degrees who saw a gap in the scholarships, to come up with a different formula to encourage poor rural students who had ability but lacked opportunity.

Shrochis Karki, Samaanta’s founder and executive director, was conducting research in 2012 at the Bishwamitra Ganesh school for his doctorate in development studies at the University of Oxford, when he had the idea to do something that would provide scholarships as part of a comprehensive program including mentorships and community service.

“For public schools nationally the pass rate is about 46 percent but this school had a 100 percent pass rate that year, with four students getting distinctions,” said Mr. Karki. “I was hearing their conversations in the village of what they were going to do next and even those who got the distinctions were talking about dropping out of school and going to the Middle East to work as laborers.”

Samaanta members administering a recruitment test to prospective fellowsAn estimated 1,500 Nepalese leave the country each day in search of jobs abroad ( 28.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product comes from remittances). So Mr. Karki and his friends decided there was something they could do, even on a small scale, to create change.

“The beginning was a really reactionary process. There was no intention to start an organization” said Mr. Karki, who will begin a new job in January at Oxford Policy Management, an international development consulting firm.

“I had worked for the N.G.O. Federation of Nepal in the past and there are more N.G.O.s than you can count, so I was quite cynical. As a student of development, I am very conscious not to perpetuate the same kinds of mistakes we critique within the development discourse, so I literally said during our first board meeting that I was O.K. with shutting down if we found, down the line, this was not working.”

Using their own money and fund-raising through friends, the founders of Samaanta helped a first cohort of six students — all from Bishwamitra Ganesh, including the four who had received the S.L.C. distinctions — enroll in the autumn of 2012 in private high schools in Katmandu to attend 11th and 12th grades.

The idea was to fund the students, referred to as fellows, through their higher secondary education and, depending on their abilities and motivation, help finance a few of them through university.

Originally, the fellows lived at home. But the daily commute was four hours, so Samaanta decided to help them with access to student dormitories. As it evolved, the program was able to provide fellows with career mentors in fields that interested them and it organized seminars and community service programs in the students’ villages.

“Most of the state and N.G.O. sector concentrate on basic education and early childhood development or lots of work is focused on tertiary education like skills training,” said Pramod Bhatta, an education researcher for Martin Chautari, a Nepalese institute. “So there is little nonstate engagement with higher education.”

Samaanta’s first fellows have now graduated and the foundation is helping finance the university studies of Ms. Shrestha and Mr. Tamang through grants, scholarships and loans, as well as small contributions from the families.

Three new fellows started the program in 2013 and three more started this year. These were chosen from other schools in the Katmandu Valley using more sophisticated selection criteria, such as essays and interviews with parents and teachers.

Samaanta hopes to be able to include more students each year from other areas across the country and, once an endowment fund is created, it hopes to have enough money to open a Samaanta dorm in Katmandu, so fellows can study and live together and have a specific space for lectures, seminars and courses like computer studies and English language training.

Samaanta fellows are also starting to access higher education outside of Nepal. This summer one of the 2013 fellows spent three weeks on a United World Colleges program in Mexico, and a scholarship has been earmarked for a Samaanta fellow to enroll in the International Baccalaureate program at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia, in the fall of 2015.

 

This story originally appeared in the International New York Times on 9 November 2014

Photo of scholars Jeny Shrestha and Jayanta Tamang and Samaanta students in classroom