Surya Karki, Atlantic Student, has officially opened three tuition-free schools in rural Nepal for children between the ages 4 and 14, and he plans to open three more by July. Karki, 24, hopes to establish a total of 35 schools within the next 4 years. “Education has been very close to me, close to my heart,” Karki said Friday, sharply dressed while sitting in a booth at College of the Atlantic’s dining hall. “I’m the first in my family to go to university and the first in my village.”
Karki will be among 83 students receiving bachelor’s degrees in human ecology from College of the Atlantic on Saturday. The commencement ceremony is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. and will feature author and environmental justice advocate Barry Lopez as the keynote speaker. He was born and raised in Sankhuwasabha District of eastern Nepal.
Karki belonged to a lower middle-class family. He grew up in a two-room stone house with thatched roof and his family relied on agriculture to sustain their livelihood. “We barely had food to eat in the evening,” Karki said. “Shoes were distant [unfamiliar] things.”
Things took a positive turn in his life when he received a scholarship to attend a boarding School in Kathmandu at the age of 9. “I never knew buses existed,” Karki said of his childhood. “The first time we went to the bus station, we walked for seven hours.”
After graduating high school, Karki went abroad on another scholarship, attending Simon Bolivar United World College in Barinas, Venezuela, for two years in pursuit of an associate’s degree in agriculture. From there he returned for a year to Nepal, where he helped to found a school called Maya Universe Academy in 2011. The following year, after earning a scholarship to College of the Atlantic, he came to Maine.
Karki became interested in how sustainable business practices can promote economic development while he was at the college of Atlantic. Under the guidance and mentorship of professor Jay Friedlander – who he described as a father figure to him, Karki became more ambitious and visionary about the things he wanted in life.
“He never told me I had to do something,” Karki said. “He just asked me the questions that were needed for me to convince myself that it was the right thing that I wanted to do.”
In 2014, Karki and others founded the Diyalo Foundation to help promote and fund primary education, sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy projects in his home country. Last year, he aimed to establish a rechargeable rickshaw station business in Nepal — but a devastating earthquake changed those plans. It was then when he decided that establishing schools should be their topmost priority.
Each of the three schools that opened this past year, all of which are at least three hours walking distance from each other, have between 150 and 200 students divided up among four to eight classrooms, for a three-school total of about 500 students, Karki said. The idea is to build schools in communities that want them and do not already have viable government-funded schools, he said.
The government-run schools are “very dysfunctional,” according to Karki.
“Teachers don’t come at all to school,” he said. “Students go to school because they have to go.”
The communities where the Diyalo schools are built provide labor and materials for the schools.
The Nepal government this spring agreed to support the initiative for five years, paying the salaries of two or three teachers at each school, while Diyalo Foundation funds at least three positions at each. The teachers hired for these new private schools, he said, are young, tend to be dissatisfied with the government-run schools, and want to reform the country’s education system from the ground up.
Karki said Diyalo has a goal of raising $1.5 million in the next five years to pay for teacher salaries. After five years, the government will pay the salaries for all the teachers at each of the schools founded by the nonprofit, he said.
United World Schools, a London-based nonprofit, is helping to fund the effort, he added.
Karki said getting the project off the ground has not been easy. Political conditions in Nepal are not stable, and government officials at first did not take him seriously when he approached them about helping to staff his private, tuition-free schools for rural children.
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