Post and Photography by Lauren Shuty – Board Member of Rukmini Foundation
It’s amazing sometimes how life surprises us. Sometimes, when we least expect it, life takes our hand and leads us a down a path different from the one we were trying so hard to walk on. For me, life has taken my hand on many occasions and led me back to a most unexpected place indeed: Nepal.
While in high school, I became fascinated with an IMAX movie about Mount Everest. While the story of the climbers was interesting, and at times harrowing, it was the scenes of the landscapes, temples, and people in the Kathmandu valley that especially fascinated me. Years passed, and books of photographs and history of the country began to collect on my bookshelves.
In hopes of visiting Nepal and other foreign lands, I decided that the natural career path to achieve this would be to become a photojournalist for National Geographic. Enroll in journalism and photography program at Penn State – check. Join the photography staff of the Daily Collegian, the university’s newspaper – check. Last on the list – gain international experience. So while thumbing through glossy brochures of Italy, Spain, and France in the study abroad office, I noticed a less glamorous display off to the side: Senegal, India, Thailand, Kenya, and, of course, Nepal. I dropped the pamphlets I was looking at, let life take me by the hand to the other table, and never looked back.
Six months later, after spending a summer taking intensive Nepali language classes, I had landed, bewildered and overwhelmed, at the Kathmandu airport. From the time I stepped off the plane I was officially and helplessly hooked on Nepal. What followed was an indescribable year that taught me more about human nature, the importance of family, the meaning of true education, and myself than any other experience in my life. I even brought a puppy home to America (“Annapurna” is very healthy and will be turning 11 in February!). Most importantly, I reconsidered my career path for something more gratifying and altruistic.
While doing research as part of my studies in Nepal, I found myself teaching English at the Sri Lahouri Primary School in Naudara, Nepal, a poor rural town outside the city of Pokhara. Having never taught before, the experience was often overwhelming and my lessons impromptu, but the seeds of teaching had been sown within me. It was apparent that in order to overcome their poverty and struggles, the students would need consistent, high quality instruction, which was something I regretted that I could not provide them during my limited stay.
Often children missed classes for days because they had to help out at home or on the family farm. Even the children that did attend regularly were accustomed to rote learning: memorizing English phrases and copying of English words and letters. The students had virtually no English reading or listening comprehension skills, nor did they seem to have the ability transfer what they had learned into new situations. Resources at the school were scarce. Each classroom had a blackboard, wooden benches, and a dirt floor. The children often had to share a nubby pencil, or used a battered, passed down workbook. Others arrived sick, shoeless, and unbathed. But no matter what they lacked in material items, the children always came to school wearing smiles. As soon as I was within view of the school, a small swarm of children would run to me and trot by my side as I made my way down to the school. The problems with education in Nepal were innumerable, palpable and very frustrating to this young college student who felt helpless to meet their needs. The problems were so much bigger than I was able to fathom.
The problems with education in Nepal were innumerable, palpable and very frustrating to this young college student who felt helpless to meet their needs.
Six years later, with a master’s degree and several promising teaching experiences under my belt, I was frustrated by the fact that I had not secured a teaching job. (Anyone currently looking for a teaching job in Pittsburgh can relate). After attending a yoga class one evening, a fellow student suggested that I explore pursing a certification in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). She was also a teacher and had seen an explosion in the number of immigrant children in her district, and she thought that adding this certification might help with my job search. It was as if a light bulb went off, and the idea made perfect sense. It was the missing piece of the puzzle. The rest happened quickly. I obtained my ESL certification, and shortly thereafter an ESL teaching position opened in a nearby district, which ironically (or perhaps, fatefully) had a recent influx of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees. I was hired. My experiences in Nepal, which I had assumed would never have any bearing on employment, had turned around and helped me get my first, official teaching job. There goes life intervening again…
Now I walk into schools every day, and help children who are new to the U.S. and/or the English language learn how to communicate. I teach children from all around the world, but it seems almost fateful that many of my students speak Nepali as their first language. The children and their parents have a new set of challenges ahead of them. Like most Americans, they are immigrants, and as such are discovering what it means to “make it” in America. Adjusting to expectations of American culture and schools has proved to be difficult for quite a number of the students and their families. I feel lucky that I have been able to utilize my Nepali language skills to help bridge this communication gap.
This past summer, I booked a flight back to the place I’d been dying to return to since I had left it ten years before. Nepal welcomed me back with its open, destitute, chaotic, yet beautiful arms. After one month of sightseeing and reminiscing, it was as if Nepal hugged me goodbye. I promised that when I returned, instead of just observing, I would do something to help the country, if even in a small way.
Having this ongoing love affair with a country, and desire to help it, you can only imagine my shock and excitement when I happened to read an article in the Post-Gazette about a Pittsburgh-based foundation geared towards helping to educate young girls in Nepal. Several days later I found myself sitting in a coffee shop with Bibhuti, the founder of the Rukmini Foundation. I could hardly believe my ears as he proposed that I become a member of the organization. Once in my car after our meeting, I had to shake my head and smile in near disbelief as the next song that randomly played on my IPod was a traditional Nepali folk song. If life has taught me anything, it has taught me to follow it when it guides me to a new direction. Having recently been officially welcomed into the Rukmini Foundation, I feel that this is a step in a new direction; and yet again, inexplicably, I find myself being led back to Nepal and its people.
But no matter what they lacked in material items, the children always came to school wearing smiles
The Rukmini Foundation immediately impressed me with its simple, yet realistic approach to tackling one of Nepal’s many challenges. Education has proved countless times over to be effective in overcoming poverty, discrimination, crime, and ignorance, and I believe that this will prove to be the case with helping young, underprivileged girls in Nepal. I believe that with proper education, support and skills for empowerment put into place, these girls will follow a different path than what is expected of them. As a teacher I am aware of the time it can take for students to show growth and progress, but often all it takes for them to succeed is to have consistent support from people who believe in them. I believe that this foundation can be the support that the girls need. If given the opportunity, who knows what they will do and who they will become? When I think about the purpose and potential of the Rukmini Foundation, I am reminded of the following story:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”
The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”
-Story by Loren Eisley