Peace Corps' Influence Changed My Fate
I was brought into the world destined for disadvantage and lifelong discrimination.
In Nepal, to be born Dalit, the lowest of societal castes, means to be born with the hand of fate rested squarely on your shoulders. It means that advancing economically and socially is nearly impossible. This fate is compounded with further difficulties if you are a woman.
In some of my earliest memories, I can recall the pain and anguish of being labeled “untouchable.” For a child, beginning life defined as the lowest of low gives oneself an achingly powerful sense of worthlessness. Imagine yourself at 8 years old playing with friends, but constantly made aware you are less than. Not able to go where the others went and not offered the same comforts as higher-caste children. Even in my own community, many places were off limits, including temples.
I consider myself lucky, however, because I had a father who understood my only path to overcome my fate was education. My father was a hardworking man who tailored clothes for high-caste people. Though this sounds as if it were his profession, in reality it was a form of slavery. The adversity he faced was a catalyst for working toward a different way of life for his daughter.
Eventually I did make it to primary school. This was no safe haven from ridicule, as my caste was in essence a scarlet letter. I faced torment and bullying not just from other students, but from my teachers as well. Despite this, I made a goal for myself to excel. I was consistently ranked first in my courses, but because of my status I could only reach grade three. I thought this would be the end of my education, but the setback was only for a short while and eventually I was permitted to attend middle school.
By the time I was ready for the next step, I had continued to top my academic classes. So much so, in fact, that Manakamana Higher Secondary School in Gorkha approached my family and allowed me to attend their program. This was very fortunate, as my family could not have afforded to send me. Luckily my grades were considered beneficial to the school’s image and they arranged for me to attend tuition-free. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was here that I would meet the man who would make a profound difference on the arc of my life.
On my second day at Manakamana, I was approached by John. He was the school’s science teacher and a Peace Corps Volunteer. Up to this point, I had not seen many foreigners. I was so afraid that he would not like me because of the perceived class difference ingrained in my self-concept. This makes it hard to trust others; it makes you scared they will humiliate you if given the opportunity.
John, though, was so different. He didn’t care what caste I was. He treated me equally and with respect and we grew very close during our work together. He made me feel so comfortable simply to exist as a worthy person in my own right. And it wasn’t only me, there were so many other students he motivated during his Peace Corps service in Nepal.
He finished his service in 1990, but his relationship with me continued. Before he left, he encouraged me to finish and pass my “School Living Certificate.” This is what would allow me to go to university. He told me if I passed, he would find a way to help me pay for further schooling, which was still completely out of reach for me.
In 1992, I passed my SLC exam. Soon after, I reached out to John to let him know about my achievement. He put me in contact with a friend of his, Pam, who was in Kathmandu teaching through a distance learning program for the University of Wisconsin. Working through the two of them and my high school’s foundation, I was given a scholarship of $700. This was more money than I had seen in all of my years. It was absolutely life-changing.
This gracious act of support allowed me to pursue not only higher education, but my life’s work and richness of purpose. Having Peace Corps and John in my life gave me positive reinforcement, allowing me to believe in myself. It also gave me the right tools to advance myself.
I used this motivation to found the Association of Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN) in 1998. This organization has two central goals: empowering women through financial independence and empowering children through education. We work tirelessly to end oppression based on caste, gender and class. To date, ADWAN has helped approximately 50,000 Nepali people. This assistance comes in many forms, but notably the organization teaches women about business, aiming to equip them to thrive in the modern economy.
When we empower women, it empowers their family and the entire community. My example is proof that one can overcome adversity when both informal and formal structures exist to create a framework of support. In this regard, the Peace Corps is so important because it enacts a mission that positively impacts individuals and communities across the globe.
I was the first girl from my community to graduate high school. Now, through my organization and the efforts of others, this has become a reality for many other girls. The Peace Corps and a very special Volunteer helped me actualize my dreams and define my own fate. I now believe that nothing is impossible.