Nikhiya Shamsher was awarded the Diana Award in 2017 for her work improving access to education in India. Here she explains more about her journey as an education activist and why she believes education can change the world.

When I was 12 years old, one afternoon in the summer holidays my mother gave away my old school bag to Roja, our house-helper’s daughter. When Roja received the school bag she was overjoyed and wrote me a thank-you note, saying the bag made her “eager and excited to go to school”. Roja’s excitement made me both happy and sad. I was happy because Roja was happy, but I was sad because I realized the value of my bag and the impact it made on someone who could not afford it. I soon realised there are kids who do not have access to even basic study materials, which really affects their educational and career prospects.

In India, The Right to Education Act guarantees free education to every child between the age of 6 and 14, yet India is going through a severe learning crisis. Although a lot of kids are going to school, they are failing to learn. A recent headline in a national daily newspaper reported that 96% of kids in rural India now go to school but a quarter of them cannot read and more than 50% of them cannot do basic maths. Poor content of education and outdated teaching methods are found to be the main reasons behind this problem.

“More than 50% of students in rural India cannot do basic maths”

Shocked by these statistics, and inspired by Roja’s story, an idea started shaping in my head to change this, and soon Bags, Books and Blessings was born.

As part of this initiative, a group of friends and I began driving for donations for old school supplies which we could give to schools which don’t have them. We spread the word far and wide. At the end of our campaign, we had a room full of bags, books, uniforms, shoes, pencil cases, water bottles and so much more. We transported the items to another school that was in need of them. We decided to keep going, and four years since then, we now get donations from all around India and we are adding more and more schools to the list of recipients.

Many people donated in cash, so we decided to put the funds to good use with our Yearn to Learn project. Through this project we set up science and math labs in schools and colleges that don’t have them, improving students access to STEM subjects which will help them in future employment.

Nikhiya sets up a new laboratory as part of her Yearn to Learn project

In the last four years, Bags, Books and Blessings has provided school supplies to 11,525 children and Yearn to Learn has set up 120 labs of Science and Math in 30 schools. We’re still growing today and I’m continuing to fight for education.

There was a moment when I felt like my project was making a difference. A little boy from one of the schools involved in Yearn to Learn ran up to me with small wires in hand and glee in eyes and asked me if he could make a hydraulic lift that could help with his grandmother’s arthritis. He had started to become a problem solver. His fellow students started to follow him and also began realising their true potential and their thirst for exploration. It was amazing that the Yearn to Learn lab in this school had sparked this change.

A Change_Maker is someone who is willing to make a change, no matter how small, no matter how big, no matter how insignificant, no matter how great. Our world has advanced in many ways, yet today we stand at a threshold where our problems look like they may overwhelm us – climate change, expanding world population, water scarcity, problems for which we have no solution. And while these do pose a threat, overcoming these will also provide us an opportunity to grow much more than we have ever grown before. Can this be obtained by just a few individuals? The answer is no. To make our world a better place we need a lot of problem solvers and for that we need more people involved in science and technology.

The Yearn to Learn laboratories are helping students excel in science and maths.

This is where Change_Makers have the ability to play a tremendous role. Change_Makers are the change agents for society who can seize opportunities, invent new approaches and create solutions to change society for the better. We all know our universe is vast and has tremendous resources. It is for us to develop the intelligence and technology to tap into these resources, and then together we will make a change.


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