When 17-year-old Chanda Kumari walked to her best friend, Seema Kumari’s house, at 4.25 am on the morning of April 7, it was to show her support during one of Seema’s biggest achievements in her young adult life. Chanda made that momentous walk to support her friend who had applied to American graduate schools, and that night, Seema was expecting to hear back from the Ivy Leagues she had sought admission in. “I had already been accepted to two liberal arts private colleges in the US—Middlebury College and Trinity College-Hartford—and Ashoka University in India, so I already knew I was going to study well,” says Seema. “But it’s nice to keep your options open,” she laughs. And today, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard were going to get back. By 4.28 am, Seema was politely informed that her application had been rejected by the first three colleges. Seemingly dejected, she rested her hopes on Harvard, and at 4.30 am, Seema received that fateful email with those three magic words—‘Welcome to Harvard’. Excited to share the news with the people that mattered, she called the only few people she knew would be awake at this hour—Yuwa’s co-founders Rose and Franz Gastler, two of her teachers, Frieda and Laura, and her host mother from a school exchange year, all of whom were in the US. “I’m going to Harvard. I’m going to Harvard. That’s all I could say,” admits Seema.
Before she joined Yuwa, Seema’s daily life included chores at home, and attending class at the local school where teachers didn’t care. “I am lucky because my parents love and care for me and my future, and only want what’s best for me,” she says. This isn’t the case for most of the other girls. But Seema didn’t think her life was missing anything, even though there was constant pressure on her from those around her to do what’s right and marry. “But Yuwa changed my life,” she says.
Being a part of the NGO has taught Seema how to play football, how to coach young girls in the sport, how to be a mentor to those who may need guidance, and has given her access to world-class education right in her village. Yuwa’s values-based programme where peers ranked each other on qualities like honesty and leadership, areas where Seema scored high, meant she could travel internationally for football tournaments. She has spent time at coaching courses in Spain; she’s had the opportunity to take up summer courses at Washington University in St. Louis, USA, and Cambridge University, UK; she also had the opportunity to participate in a year-long high school exchange programme in the US. “I have always felt that girls in Indian villages lived very different lives from those in cities. But it was only in 2016 on a trip to Spain where Yuwa competed in the Donosti football Cup that I finally realised how different it actually was. In the village, we are constantly harassed by errant boys, we have no freedom to even think what we want, there are constant curbs on us. But in Spain, I saw girls just looking so much happier than we did back home. And that is the life I wanted,” says Seema.
Seema got a taste of life outside India while studying at an American school in a town near Seattle in 2019-20. But COVID brought home-schooling, and with it, being stuck indoors. However, this did afford her the luxury of free time to research colleges. “I made a list of all the colleges I wanted to apply to which did not require standardised testing, and had waived English language testing.” She got to know that many colleges were test-optional with SAT/ACT requirements, and she continued to research some more. Seema ended up applying to 20 colleges in the US. However, because of the pandemic, colleges did away the SAT/ACT scores and only required a strong application and later an interview to admit students. “That was a lucky break for me, and here we are,” she smiles.
Seema, however, is dismissive of her effort to master the tough admissions procedure—something children who come from privileged backgrounds pay hefty sums to consultants for—and subsequent full scholarship offer. But it included telling her incredible life experiences amidst a tight word count and a memorable Zoom interview with the admissions officer that her grandmother unwittingly crashed into and which ended in a round of Namastes being exchanged between the two women. In fact, her answer to one of the questions on the application—What specific plan to you have for using the education you hope to receive?—Seema wrote about wanting to start a small business for women in her village to empower and teach them about their rights, how to read and write, and to be leaders. “I want to help girls to continue with their education instead of being forced to marry at a young age,” she wrote.
“I can’t even put into words what this opportunity means for me. My family falls below the poverty line. They work long hours to survive and earn a daily wage, only to wake up and do the same all over again day in and day out, is all my family has ever known. I don’t think anyone can imagine the life girls and women in Indian villages live until they witness it for themselves. And even then they will fail to, as Atticus Finch said, ‘Truly be in our shoes and walk a mile’. And from a life like mine, to be considered as good enough for a university like Harvard, is an achievement I will always celebrate,” she says.
There’s no doubt that Seema is excited about the many prospects her future has in store. She’s excited about leading a student life in the US, be a part of Indian cultural groups, making new friends and just being a regular college student. “But what I am looking forward to the most is being free—free to do what I want, free from men staring at me every time I step out, free to be anything and everything I want to be,” she signs off.