The foundation of a dream
How Surya Shahi ’18 seeks to make education accessible to students in his native Nepal.
By Owen Covington
It was summer 2017 and Surya Shahi ’18 had returned to his native Nepal, traveling to the village in the Humla district where he grew up. A recipient of Elon’s Leadership Prize, Shahi was there to further his research into the myriad issues keeping higher education out of reach for so many young people in the district, one of Nepal’s poorest areas.
Throughout his time there, Shahi kept hearing the same question from residents, neighbors and community leaders: “Since you’re in America, are you going to be able to help us?” Every time he heard it, he felt devastated. “My response was that I am trying to understand better what is happening here, and in the future, I hope I can make changes in the community,” Shahi says. “We travel around the world and we learn so much, and with that knowledge, we can inform ourselves and see what we can do as leaders. I think it’s time for the youth to take charge and lead the way.”
Shahi has indeed taken charge and is carving out a path for those in Humla to better access the opportunity that comes with a quality education. This spring, Shahi learned he was one of three nationally selected to receive the competitive and prestigious Samuel Huntington Public Service Award. The $15,000 stipend will support the work of the nonprofit he created during his time at Elon, the Sapura Dream Foundation, which is named for one of his younger sisters and is now focused on building a new school in Humla. “I would love for this to be a model for the government to look at and say, ‘this is exactly what we need to do,’” Shahi says.
Shahi, who graduated in May with degrees in acting and international studies, says it was always his dream to come to the United States to receive an education, a dream made possible by the support of his godparents, Julia Alden and Giovanni Doenichini, who live in London and Italy. He was drawn to Elon because of its renowned acting program, and its size. “I didn’t want to be a number,” Shahi says. “I wanted to get really involved in the community. It has changed me and it has molded me into the person I am today, and has made me passionate about education and change.”
When his sister was accepted into college in Nepal and found she would be unable to pursue a degree because of economic and societal challenges, Shahi put that passion to work by organizing an effort to raise the money his sister would need to attend school. That effort would become the Sapura Dream Foundation, which takes its name from his nickname for his sister, and would expand to address the factors that were excludingso many of the youth in Humla not just from higher education, but from quality education in general. Those factors include politics, infrastructure, gender, caste, disability and socioeconomic status.
Shahi used the undergraduate research experience offered by Elon’s Leadership Prize to drill down into many of those root causes keeping quality education out of reach for so many in Nepal. “The kids who understand what it means to live in poverty, if they make it out, they are the ones most likely to come back and make change in their communities,” he says.
Shahi’s mentor for his Leadership Prize work, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mussa Idris, describes Shahi as a role model of a young leader and an innovative social entrepreneur. “Shahi has a clear sense of purpose in uplifting his siblings and disadvantaged youth in his community through leadership and education,” Idris says. “Based on his ethnographic research and lived experience, Shahi understands very well the root causes of poverty and barriers to quality education in his native Humla, Nepal. He is a strong advocate of the transformative quality of education for all.”
Shahi also credits Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies, and Brian Pennington, professor of religious studies, for helping him develop the skills he needs as a researcher and supporting him in his work. Learning from them how to conduct an ethnographic study “really showed me how powerful it can be to share people’s stories, and find the data to connect them,” Shahi says. During his trips back to Humla, Shahi talked with politicians, Ministry of Education officials, district education officers, parents, teachers, students and nongovernment organizations.
His research in Nepal has helped formulate the work going forward for the Sapura Dream Foundation, which expects to open five classrooms in a new school by this time next year and to have completed the school by the end of 2019 or early 2020. He expects it to begin serving 100 local students in its first year, students who haven’t had access to quality education.
Along with being honored with the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award, Shahi has received a $7,000 grant from the nonprofit Rural Empowerment and Development Initiative that is working to improve education in Humla. “I want to make sure that the community is involved in the building of the school,” he says. Beyond building the school, Shahi and his foundation are working with partners to develop plans to make the new school sustainable over the long term. Mountaineering is a major draw in Nepal, home to Mount Everest and eight of the world’s highest peaks, and Shahi believes he can tap into that appeal by marketing Humla as a trekking destination, with the school benefiting from trekking tourism in the area.
“The people of Humla are poor, but they are resourceful,” Shahi says.