Education at the primary and secondary levels in India is free in India when delivered through government schools. The quality of education varies wildly, and there are some glaring shortcomings in the program, which is why most NGOs and non-profits working in this sector tend to focus on early education, midday meal schemes (to keep kids in school) and supplemental tutoring. This makes eminent sense, since fixing the foundation and getting the basics right are the keys to literacy.
But kids who finish elementary school and have aspirations for college are often left out in the cold. There is tuition, however low, and hostel fees for those wanting to study out of town. In my own family, my father-in-law was an orphan who was determined to go to college and ended up begging for sponsorship from rich merchants in Bhubaneswar to pay his fees. He ended up with a phenomenally successful career and set up a small trust called Digjyoti to help kids like himself in Orissa.
The Vidyadhan program, set up by the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation, is a similar program conceived on a much larger and more professional scale. The program started in 1999 in Kerala and has given out 4,000 scholarships so far. About 750 students are helped each year at this time, but the plan is to grow this number to 100,000 in the next 5 years and cover as many other states as feasible.
I spoke with Meera Rajeevan, the program director, recently via phone and asked her how the candidates are selected. Since the program began in Kerala, where Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal, ex-chairman of Infosys, hail from, a network of trusted friends and family have been involved in means and merit testing. Currently, aspiring candidates for the scholarships have to pass an entrance test and an interview after which a volunteer visits the family to ensure the candidate does indeed have a financial need.
Volunteers also monitor progress on a regular basis (often more than once a year) to determine of the candidate continues to be eligible. It is a fairly rigorous process with hardly any misuse of funds by any recipient in the decade and a half since the program began. Each district has a district coordinator who keeps tabs.
One of the earliest recipients of the Vidyadhan Program is Dr. R. Gauthamen, who is currently on a Fellowship at Oxford. Dr. Gauthamen’s family ran a tailoring business in Alleppey that was constantly subject to the vagaries of demand. When he graduated high school with high grades, he was interested in studying medicine but his father could not afford the college or hostel fees. His teachers recommended him to the Foundation and after a detailed interview and home visit, his scholarship was approved. (The test was added in later years.)
The Vidyadhan program supported him through his MBBS and MD in India after which he applied to Oxford. Today he is doing a super-specialty in neonatology at John Radcliffe Hospital. He also works as a sponsor and liaison for the Vidyadhan program in London. “When I first met Mr. Shibulal,” he says, “I asked him why he was doing this for me. He told me that the day would come when I could pay it forward and that is what I am doing.”
Kumari Shibulal personally interviews all the potential candidates in Kerala. “Once, when I was talking to a girl who had applied, she broke down and started crying about her father’s ill health and how this was causing her family a great deal of suffering,” she recalls. “When she left after the interview I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I ran behind her to assure her that everything would be all right.” The Shibulals ended up paying for the family’s medical expenses as well. The family takes a very close and personal interest in this activity of the foundation and is keenly invested in the success of each student.
Now the program is expanding into Karnataka where the foundation takes the help of a local NGO called Vidya Poshak to administer background checks. Says Meera Rajeevan, “Unlike Kerala, we find that parents in rural Karnataka are less interested in sending girls for further education. So we are focusing more on the girl student here.” The program also gives a higher weightage to kids from rural areas.
In order to scale to 100,000 students, though, the SD Foundation realizes that it cannot be the only sponsor. The approach now is to find external individual and corporate sponsors from around the world who will directly sponsor the children. In an innovative approach, the Vidyadhan program makes sure that all sponsorship money is directly deposited into the bank account of the student. All administrative fees are borne by the foundation.
I asked Rajeevan if there was any potential for misuse. She confidently asserts that it has never happened, with even drop-out rates being only in the 10-15% range. This number, usually arising from the student not meeting the performance criteria, goes down to miniscule levels for kids who successfully make it to college and is a testament to the selection process. “And even if there were any misuse,” she points out reasonably, “it would be only for a year’s worth of funds.” Sponsors have also access to the students’ grades and fee receipts which brings even more transparency to the process.
What are the challenges for this program? “Each state has its own issues,” she says. “In Karnataka there is less awareness of the need for education.” Also, mentoring is a much needed investment for these kids who often suffer from low self-esteem as they rise above the circumstances they grew up in. Many cannot speak English well and find it hard to participate in the non-academic activities of the institution they join. This is where Rajeevan hopes the one-on-one sponsorship model will make a difference. “It is not mandatory, but if the sponsor wishes to get more involved with the student they are supporting we would very much welcome that.” The program is working on an online mentoring model as well.
As Dr. Gauthamen puts it, “Education is the best route to upward mobility.” To support the Vidyadhan program in its efforts or to become a sponsor/mentor for a college going student please visit https://www.vidyadhan.org/.
Note: My husband and I have been very impressed with the program and have decided to sponsor one student. Keep checking in here for more updates as the process begins.