‘So, what do you want to pursue as a career?’ I asked.
‘I want to be a doctor’ Sakera said, a bit stoically.
This was back in 2012, when this petite girl came to me informing nonchalantly that she had secured an impressive 89 per cent in the state level board exams. Working for an NGO, I had recently launched a computer center in her community and she was one of the first students to complete her certification. I asked her if she needed any assistance and she expressed that support for coaching fees would help her prepare for the medical entrance exam. She came from a family of seven siblings, she being the eldest. Her father was a wall-paper handyman. Unfortunately, at that time we could not find any scholarship support for Sakera, and being in junior college she was left to her own devices. The NGO did not have any intervention for higher secondary students.
My path crossed Sakera’s again when she applied to the NGO for a part-time job. She had finished her 12th boards and was looking for a way to supplement her family income. I asked her about her plans to study medicine and she informed me that she was going to take the entrance exam after a year and that in the meanwhile she had enrolled in a BSc course to have a backup option. For the next couple of years I observed this hard working girl whenever I visited the center. She was totally invested in teaching the secondary school students, just like she had been invested in her own learning. She not only taught the subjects but also gave study tips and career guidance and brought dignity and decorum to that little crowded classroom with her presence. I came to know during a chat with her that her new interest in college was boxing. She barely even qualified in the featherweight category, but went for practice every day, albeit secretly because her father did not approve of his daughter in the boxing rink!
Around that time, I left the NGO and lost touch with Sakera. I did hear through my network that she was continuing working in the same role while pursuing BSc and assumed, with sadness, that probably her dreams had succumbed to the realities of life.
And then, a couple of years later, my path crossed hers again! I remember the hot summer day clearly, it was at the Ghatkopar local railway station when I was about to board a crowded train just as Sakera alighted from the same compartment I was trying to get into. I was pleased to see her after a long time and decided to miss the train and have a little chat with her. We had just a few minutes before the next train. I asked her where she had been and she told me that she was returning from downtown where she visited a few education grant-making foundations. But hadn’t she finished her graduation? Yes, she had, but she had taken her NEET (medical entrance exam) again! And she had attained a decent enough score to gain admission in medical colleges in countries like Russia and Ukraine.
The next train arrived and I had to rush for my meeting so we parted ways. But I kept thinking about Sakera, what gumption and determination she had to still want to be a doctor despite the lost time and the financial crunch! Yes, her score was not high enough to get her a seat in Indian medical colleges, but it was a commendable feat considering she had been pursuing a part-time job and a full-time college course while preparing for NEET. What efforts would this girl, who had studied in an Urdu medium municipal school till 10th grade, have put in! How much midnight oil would she have burnt to come home after a tiring day at college and then teaching a bunch of moody teenagers to find the time and energy to pick up her own studies? Inadvertently, I thought of the children from privileged families, studying in affluent schools and getting supplementary assistance from the best coaching institutes, surrounded by all comforts, their well-educated English-speaking parents at their beck and call. Suddenly her NEET score felt much more fantastic to me!
At the station we had exchanged our numbers. I asked Sakera about her plans in detail. After due-diligence and research she had zeroed in on Ukraine as her study destination. Soon she connected me to an educational consultancy that guides students to study in Ukraine. Once I was convinced about the authenticity of the University of her choice we set out the next steps.
To begin with we had to arrange for funds to pay the consultancy to process her application, then her visa and then part of the fees. The arduous process of applying to various banks, NGOs, grant-making organizations began, but every time we ran into a dead end. Some rejected the course, some rejected the country of study and some just rejected without any reason. Sakera plodded on to visit each and every possible lead over the next few weeks, juggling between her job and getting her documentation ready. I marvelled at her grit each day when she shared the daily updates with me. Finally, a break came through in the form of a grant from a Trust referred by a benevolent elderly couple known to me. The Trust agreed to sponsor a portion of her first year fee. Though it was not sufficient to cover the entire course fees we took it as a sign and I spread the word far and wide sharing Sakera’s journey with as many in my network as I could and quite a few responded positively with encouragement and monetary support. Few other people stepped in, like Sakera’s seniors and mentors from the NGO where she was working, and together we were able to raise enough funds to see her through the first semester. Driven by their daughter’s passion, her parents decided to sell their only property – a piece of agricultural land in rural UP to help her make her dreams come true. Many of her well-wishers contributed luggage, warm clothing and utensils as a good-will gesture.
In September 2019, Sakera bid farewell to her teary-eyed parents and siblings, she travelled to Delhi by train and then took the first flight of her life to Kyiv. Her story so far is inspiring enough and whosoever has heard it from me finds this bright and fiery girl truly exceptional.
However, the way Sakera shone after she joined the Vinnytsia University is also worth sharing here. Everything was new for her as it was for her many Indian batchmates. Apparently Ukraine is a hotspot for Indian medical aspirants. But the road was doubly hard for her as she had to catch up on her English skills and also sustain herself within limited funds. Winter had begun setting in when she reached there. The culture shock, the climate change, the pressure to perform well, the hassle of finding economical accommodation – all of it hit her. However, in her usual calm and somewhat stoic manner, she dealt with it all. Within a few weeks she had adapted very well and was not only excelling at her courses but also helping her peers.
She was among the top students of her class by the end of the first year. The second year was mostly online due to the pandemic, but she has stayed back in Ukraine while most of the Indian students had returned home. She used the vacations to study ahead and also to prepare for the MCI (Medical Council of India) entrance exam that is mandatory for all medical students who have studied abroad wanting to practice medicine in India.
Along with her impressive academic track record, Sakera also participates in a lot of volunteer initiatives and mingles with the international student community to broaden her horizons.
She has continued to assist her ex-students and siblings with their studies back in India. She also gives back volunteer hours to my recently set-up foundation that takes care of arranging her education fees and has committed to support her till she earns her MBBS.
They say – it takes a village to raise a child – and indeed support has come in from various quarters from all over the world, ranging across a substantial grant from a group of individuals in Canada to smaller amounts that are contributed by some individuals regularly for her miscellaneous expenses. And all these good Samaritans are rooting for Sakera to become a doctor, and if anyone deserves to succeed, it is her!
The author is Founder, Blue Parijaat Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].