You know you got a big headline when you hear someone has refused a high-paying placement offer after passing out from an Indian Institute of Management (IIM).
Pooja Mishra, an IIM Kolkata alumna, turned down job offers from some of the best firms in the country and abroad to change the lives of children in her ancestral village in UP’s Purasi.
Purasi, a small village, part of the Rae Bareili district in Uttar Pradesh, is where Pooja’s story begins. After six years in the US with Infosys, Pooja, who holds an engineering degree in computer sciences, arrived at IIM Kolkata in 2010 with her three-and-a-half year old son in tow. It was during the final placement process that things took a dramatic turn. “I had all the intention of sitting for the placement interviews, but then it dawned upon me that I didn’t want to get back into the grind of a corporate job again. It was then that I thought about the differences between my life, growing up in the city, working in the US, etc. and that of my cousins in Purasi who had little access to higher education and had been married off early. That strengthened my resolve to do something different, something more meaningful with my degree,” says Pooja.
Next thing, she called up her husband who told her to send in an official letter to the placement committee before she thought too much about it, and that was it!
Gurukul Public School, a charitable English-medium school in Purasi village was the outcome of her declining a corporate job. Pooja is the founder cum full-time principal of this school. The land for the school was graciously ‘donated’ by Pooja’s father and with their own savings Pooja and her husband set about starting this school.
If you want to make something happen, it will happen.”
Her commitment is inspiring – she travels 80 kms every day from and to Lucknow to get to the school. When you ask her, surprisingly, she’s quite gung-ho about the whole thing, “The highway is quite good, so it’s only an hour-and-a –half’s drive either way which is as good as a commute in the city.”
There was a time when Pooja would traverse the distance on a scooty, sometimes even taking public transport, “Back then even the roads were quite bad and unsafe. But I was so charged about the idea and my commitment to the school that I never thought about any obstacle at that time. Now when I look back, I wonder how I managed to do it all,” she says even as she recalls how she went into pre-term labour on her way to school three years ago. “I was driving my scooter like usual when I missed seeing a pothole and fell into it. I was seven months pregnant with my daughter and went into labour immediately. But that didn’t scare me. If you want to make something happen, it will happen.”
“I worked really hard, learning things about managing a school, teaching, etc. and putting everything into a school. I have never believed in the concept of teaching students under a tree like they show in the movies. Besides, even to earn the stipulated government affiliations, a school needs basic infrastructure, so we decided to provide a proper place for the students to come to,” says Pooja.
In 2012, Gurukul Public School was off to a meagre but enthusiastic start with 28 students and the hope that the numbers would improve in the coming days.
But sometimes, hope isn’t enough. The numbers, instead of going up, went down. “I had the idea in my head that with my IIM degree and work experience in the US to back me up, the school would make a name for itself and more students would enrol eventually. The next year, things were so bad that at one time I even contemplated shutting it down,” rues Pooja.
“One day I sat in the verandah of the school and began to think ‘What have I got into?’ If I can’t even get children to come to my school what is the point of this hard labour?”. The 100 rupees they were charging as fees was extremely low, not enough to cover any of the running expenses but Pooja knew that even that was difficult for parents to afford in Purasi. It was during the summer break that two of her students came to ask her when the school would reopen. “That was the moment I decided that I couldn’t shut the school down. I had given these children hope so I wouldn’t renege on the promise,” Pooja says.
In the second year, Pooja changed the modus operandi. Instead of charging fees from students, Pooja decided to get outside support. “I thought of all my IIM batchmates and shot off an email to everyone marking the start of the ‘One child-One mentor’ program at Gurukul, and surprisingly, quite a few of them reverted,” Pooja reveals.
The ‘One Child-One Mentor’ program sponsors the education of Gurukul’s students with Rs 500 per head per month to cover individual expenses for stationery and uniforms. “Instead of asking for donations, we thought we should cover the students, which will itself take care of the rest,” Pooja explains.
Today, of Gurukul’s 1000 students, nearly 800 are covered. But even the rest are accommodated by tweaking the numbers a little. “As a policy, I never say no to a child just because I don’t have a sponsor for them. We adjust and things work out,” she says.
Pooja has been raising money for infrastructure through crowd-funding ventures like the latest one on Ketto for a classroom.
Getting to 1000 students in 2016 from 28 in 2012 is no mean feat for an English-medium school in a village. There were not just hurdles on the financial front but also on the social front. “When I first started, there was a lot of scepticism and suspicion. People were suspicious of my motives to give free education to children. People were willing to send their children to the small private schools which charged Rs 25/50 as fee, but not willing to send them to Gurukul. We had to work hard to build goodwill,” Pooja says.
Once this was out of the way, there were other challenges. Pooja explains, “All my students come from extremely poor families where education has never been a priority. Even ensuring regular attendance, which is a priority for us, was not easy. A child who comes to school for 2-3 days in a week is not acceptable to us because if the child doesn’t come to school, how will we change their lives? But for parents it is an achievement. Today the reason we have 80-85% attendance is because we have started being strict with parents.”
Pooja also ensures that along with giving Gurukul’s students the best possible education, they are also able to aid in the holistic growth of the child through personality development practices. “Some of these children didn’t even take daily bath, so we had to start with something as basic as the importance of hygiene. At the same time, we help the children become more confident through some of our extra-curricular activities.” Taekwondo classes, excursions and cultural programs are undertaken at Gurukul regularly. Her biggest compliment she says came from a friend, also a sponsor at Gurukul, who said that now the students look like those of a ‘regular private school’ with their smart uniforms and confident bearings. Today the school boasts of a beautiful building with spacious classrooms, a computer lab, a science lab and even a library which is quite hard to imagine in a low-income village like Purasi.
Pooja’s commitment and dedication to her cause is commendable, “I have always believed that education is the biggest enabler of social change and while I know that my students won’t be IITians or IIMians, and that their diction and pronunciation of English might not be at par with children in the city, I am glad that at least we have given them an opportunity and an education which will make them employable. And I hope that they’ll use this opportunity to make their children IITians and IIMians.” Pooja hopes to turn Gurukul into a model school with 10,000 students and replicate the success in Purasi in other rural districts with the government’s help.
“Poor facilities for education in the rural areas are destroying entire generations of our children and unless we come forward to make a difference, very little can be achieved,” Pooja declares.
You too can contribute to Pooja’s cause by sponsoring one of her students at Gurukul or donating to the classroom fund.