Leaders from the Field:Overcoming the Lack of Access to Education in Philly and Nepal

By Abby Hurst, Vice President of U.S. Programs

During my last my last Leaders From the Field blog entry I discussed how buildOn’s youth service programs help high school students explore their communities and broaden their horizons. One of the students I profiled, Nikhail James, has since expanded his realm of possibility even more profoundly: Pushing himself beyond his comfort zone, he traveled over 7,500 miles from his home in Philly to help build a school in the rural village of Kharula.

I had the pleasure of sharing two incredible weeks with Nikhail and a group of students from Philadelphia as they explored a beautiful and different culture. On April 12, 2011, we broke ground on buildOn’s 80th school in Nepal. It’s a notable milestone, and one that I was happy to see Nilhail take part in: He is truly one of those amazing individuals who has taken up the buildOn mission as his own.

Nikhail, like many of our students, is intimately acquainted with perseverance. At 17, he already lives on his own, and he’s had to make difficult decisions for himself from a very early age. But he faces these challenges with determination and shrewdness. A chess player, Nikhail thrives on strategy, and is able to predict the outcomes of decisions made both in games and in life. And with his rich desire to be a positive and productive member of his community, and I knew he’d find the experience of building a school in Nepal rewarding.

[pullquote]Nikhail, like many of our students, is intimately acquainted with perseverance.[/pullquote]

Nikhail knew the trip was going to be demanding, but he had no idea how much strength and courage it would require. The dust and smoke of daily life in Kharula caused his asthma to intensify, and he labored to breathe for nearly the entire trip. But Nikhail’s primary concern was not for himself, but for the efforts of his teammates, his friends, his host family, and the children of Kharula to construct the school. Nikhail’s bravery was profoundly inspiring.

While in Nepal, Nikhail was deeply influenced by Lilla Choudhury, a village girl not much younger than himself whom he lived with. Nikhail at first attempted clumsily to communicate with Lilla using language, but eventually found that they share a common interest in games.

The turning point, Nikhail tells me, was one they played Connect Four one evening. Towards the end of the game, each player had 5 chips left, and Nikhail counted out the remaining moves on the board to see who would win. Lilla simultaneously did the same thing. They recognized the fate of the game at the exact same moment. “We really were able to communicate without language,” Nikhail says. “I made a friend without words.” Nikhail realized that Lilla is an incredibly smart young woman who simply doesn’t have access to education; he could feel his perspective shifting as he recognized the connection between his own life and the lives of millions of people like Lilla without many opportunities.

[pullquote]“We really were able to communicate without language,” Nikhail says. “I made a friend without words.”[/pullquote]

Nikhail adds that his trip to Nepal has motivated him to get involved at a global level. “When I went there I really liked the people. I didn’t believe that I would connect with them the way I did. Now I need to find a way to help people in developing countries.” I have no doubt that Nikhail will do just that! His courage and the manner in which his vision has expanded truly embodies the essence of buildOn.