As college students, we may not always be able to go home as often as we’d like. This is especially the case for those of us who are international students and can only make the trip once per year. But distance is not the only thing separating senior Laxmi Rajak from her family back in Nepal. In addition to the miles, there’s an entire cultural and educational gap.
Seeing the Laxmi of today – successful, respected – one would never suspect her past. Laxmi grew up in a small town in Nepal where the caste system is still prevalent. As part of the lower caste, Laxmi was treated as an “untouchable” by members of her community. They made derogatory remarks, calling her “washer man’s daughter,” and would not even allow her to touch the common source of water in the village. Laxmi had to ask someone from a higher caste to get water for her.
“When I was back in Nepal, I felt this is part of the culture,” Laxmi said. “It’s not their problem, it’s my problem. I was born into this so I can’t really do anything.”
Laxmi was fortunate enough to have SOS Children’s Villages step in when she was four. SOS Children’s Villages is an organization that works to provide education for underprivileged children. This was an opportunity that Laxmi and her two younger siblings received, but that her older sister never got.
Laxmi’s older sister had the job of taking care of the younger siblings because Laxmi’s father left the family when she was young and her mother worked all day to support them.
“I’m still very close to her. Because my mom was very busy with work, I kind of grew up with her,” Laxmi said.
While Laxmi was getting an education through SOS Children’s Villages, her older sister became a young bride at the age of 18 and started a family of her own.
“It’s just so different- the life she has and the life I have. It’s painful.”
Laxmi watched as her sister began a path very similar to that of their mother, who married at the age of 12 and worked odd jobs like washing dishes at restaurants and planting and harvesting others’ fields to sustain the family.
“I respect them,” Laxmi said. “But seeing where my mother and my sister were, that kept me motivated because I don’t want to have that life.”
Laxmi was selected for the Pestalozzi scholarship after 10th grade, and she left Nepal for two years to earn her IB diploma in England. From there, she applied to Duke and became a Karsh International Scholar.
“I knew growing up that we should be treated like human beings, but I began to think about it more once I was away from the country. I realized I had to do something. I need to speak out about this.”
Using the resources provided by the scholarship program, Laxmi has spent the last three summers working to create educational opportunities for the less privileged. She first worked with an NGO in Mumbai, India to educate slum children under the “Community Engagement Program”, then taught at three primary schools with WISER in Kenya to provide an educational foundation for girls, and finally went back to Nepal to delve into research of her own. Her past experiences equipped her skills that she could apply to her work in Nepal.
For her independent research, Laxmi went to three different districts in Nepal and conducted interviews with 10-16 year old children of lower castes. Laxmi’s goal was to see how the children’s experiences differed from one another. Current research gave a homogenous view of the lower caste’s education, and she worked to uncover the differences between regions and provide a more heterogeneous perspective.
Laxmi’s research has a downside, however: It limits the amount of time she is able to spend with her family during the summer.
“I talk to them very often, but I don’t get to see them until I go home. And I only go home once a year because it’s so expensive.”
When she does get to spend time with her family, however, Laxmi sometimes finds that there is a conflict of perspective.
“I see things differently, I act differently now. It can get frustrating sometimes. You’re trying to convey something and they don’t necessarily understand.”
This conflict is especially pronounced between Laxmi and her younger sister, who just graduated high school. Laxmi’s mother becomes ill quite often as a result of abuse that she faced from her ex-husband. Laxmi’s sister has had to balance her studies with taking care of her mother.
“She’s like, ‘you don’t know what I’m going through because you’re in the US having a wonderful life,’ and I’m here so I see that. She doesn’t realize I have a lot of things going on here too. It’s not like I’m going to the beach every weekend, but I understand where she’s coming from. There seems to be something missing on both sides because I’m not part of her life and she’s not part of my life.”
After graduating from Duke, Laxmi plans on taking a gap year to continue the research she started in Nepal. With her research, she hopes to either work with the current education system in Nepal or start an organization of her own. Laxmi’s research, however, is not the only reason she wants to return to Nepal.
“My mom always complains that I don’t spend much time with them. I’ve been away from home for five years now, so I think it’s important for me to be back and be with my mom and my sister too.”
Hopefully, by returning to Nepal, Laxmi will be able to remedy not only the rift between her and her family, but also the educational chasm between the lower and upper castes, improving the system that allowed her to be who she is today.
Photographer: Marissa Michaels
Graphic Designer: Camila Vargas
Hair & Make Up: Chelsea Grain
Production Assistant: Carolina Madrid