The mango juice tasted funny.
That’s how Kusuma started her personal essay when applying to U.S. colleges this year.
Kusuma was then 3 years old. She had 2 older sisters. They lived with their mother, who was raising her 3 daughters on her own.
The family traveled from village to village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, hiding from money lenders who often threatened them with violence. “For years, I had struggled alone, desperate to feed my kids,” says Kusuma’s mother, Yashodha.
After a long and tiring day, her mother offered all three girls the juice. Then she drank some herself.
“My sisters and I happily gulped it down, ignoring the tingling sensation on our tongues,” Kusuma wrote. “I remember my mother was crying, and after we finished our juice, she gave each of us a kiss and told us to go to bed. I woke up in a hospital bed with a tube in my throat. Later, I learned my mother had laced the mango juice with pesticide in an attempt to take our lives and her own.”
Kusuma’s mother Yashodha says their home had been robbed on that day. “The robbery just triggered within me the deepest loneliness and despair.”
Kusuma and her sisters survived. Yashodha deeply regretted the incident but says she saw it as a turning point. From then on, she was determined to give her daughters better lives. She found work at a local garment factory and took on private orders at home, working until 2 a.m. most days.
She enrolled Kusuma’s sisters in public schools, but a friend suggested that she take Kusuma to Shanti Bhavan, a residential school on the outskirts of Bengaluru for impoverished kids, run by a nonprofit educational trust. “I heard they take only one member from a family suffering hardships and Kusuma was at the right age. My other two daughters were older,” says Yashodha.
It’s a school that has earned praise for its extraordinary commitment to enabling its students to succeed. In 2007, it was featured in Daughters of Destiny, a Netflix documentary series that followed 5 girls over 7 years, filmed by Oscar-winner Vanessa Roth.
And this year there’s a new milestone for the school. In past years, its college applicants did not have to take the SAT. This year, for the first time, college-bound students from the school took the SAT exams, competing head-on with American and international students. Colleges waive SAT exams only in very exceptional circumstances; if students from the school are able to compete academically, that’s a promising sign.
Kusuma is one of four students from Shanti Bhavan who took the SATs and made it into a top U.S. university with a full scholarship.
What makes the school stand out
There are currently 250 children enrolled in Shanti Bhavan – most from rural and urban slums. Many are part of India’s lower castes and come from families that earn less than $2 a day. In addition to social discrimination because of their caste, some of the children have had to cope with alcoholism in their family, physical and sexual abuse, and gender-based violence, says Ajit George, director of operations. And many come from single-parent households.
What makes the school stand out is the way it sets up a path for the success of its students, says Patrick Inglis, assistant professor of sociology at Grinnell College. The school not only supports the children while they are students but right up until the day they get their first job. Inglis has interviewed roughly 45 graduates to learn how the school has helped them escape poverty and transform their lives. He’s writing about their lives in a forthcoming book called Paying it Forward: The Promise and Burden of a Good Education.
It’s a daring wager, he says: What happens when you dedicate time, money, love and support to poor children from the most marginalized communities in the country — when you give as much to them and expect as much from them as you would any child from a well-off background?
Today, Kusuma, 18, is on her way to Middlebury College in Vermont after scoring 91% on her board examinations in India. She intends to major in computer science and artificial intelligence. (Both the students and representatives of Shanti Bhavan asked that their last names not be used to protect their family from stigma.)
Nicole Curvin, the dean of admissions at Middlebury, notes that “Shanti Bhavan is one of many unique high school environments that we learn about through the admissions process. Admitted students like Kusuma clearly demonstrated through their transcripts, letters of recommendation, standardized testing, interview and essay that they were ready to join and contribute to our rigorous academic programs. We also consider individual context and lived experiences, and Kusuma’s personal path has been inspirational.”
For Kusuma, reaching this milestone meant overcoming the trauma of her early years. She did this, she says, with the help of counseling she received at Shanti Bhavan — as well as emotional support from caring teachers and staff.
“As I grew older, I understood the difficulties my mother faced. It made it possible for me to forgive her, to put the incident behind me and move on,” she says.
His army stint inspired him to start the school.
The school owes its existence to Abraham George, an Indian businessman who made his fortune in software.
The desire to start Shanti Bhavan dates back to his army days in the 1960s. Traveling across India as a soldier, he says that his eyes were opened to the deep inequality and prejudice faced by impoverished communities and people considered lower caste.
“I was driven by my desire to help those in poverty to overcome their hardship in one generation, by bringing up their children to be professionally successful. This desire came about from my conviction that it is my duty to help those in need — a reverence for life,” says George, now age 75, who lives on the Shanti Bhavan campus for nine months of the year and spends the other three at his home in New Jersey.
In 1997, he decided to create a school with the goal of lifting its graduates – and their families – out of poverty. 48 children were accepted the first year — 24 for pre-kindergarten and 24 for kindergarten. The idea was to eventually run a K-12 school for ages 4-17. He picked the name “Shanti Bhavan” because it meant “haven of peace” in Sanskrit.
“I am happy about what I have accomplished but wish that I could have done more,” he says. “But the financial setbacks I encountered in 2008 didn’t permit that. I am indeed very proud of the accomplishments of our graduates but more so about the type of young adults they are — with character and values.”
For the first 12 years, the school was funded entirely from his father’s savings, says Ajit George, who divides his time between Seattle and India. The first class of students graduated in 2010. “At the time we were recovering from the financial crisis and were almost forced to close down,” he recalls.
Because the family hadn’t reached out to other organizations for support, that personal financial setback meant that the school suffered too. Today, the family money is still a main source of support, adding up to over $20 million in contributions over the years, says Ajit George. But they’re no longer the sole funder. “Our current funding is a mix of grassroots and individual donors, corporations, partner non-profits.” The school has partnered with many non-profit organizations, including She’s the First, Broadway for Arts Education, McKinsey for Children and investment firms such as Baleen Capital.
As word spread in local communities, the school began to receive hundreds of applications — but they could only take on 26 students each year — equally divided between boys and girls.
“It’s always a challenge — there’s no shortage of needy, deserving children,” says Ajit George. So in 2017, they started raising funds to build a second school in the village of Chikkahosahalli, about an hour away Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Construction will soon be underway.
A new start, new toys .. and a swimming pool, too
For the students, their new life is a dramatic change from the poverty they have known. The four students interviewed for this story all said they loved the school, their accommodations, the meals and the perks (there’s a swimming pool, a basketball and volleyball court on the 30-acre campus). There’s even a community garden where they grow their own vegetables.
“I fell in love with all the toys at Shanti Bhavan when I first arrived as a 4-year-old and was especially fond of a huge white teddy bear,” says Kusuma. “My mother said it made her so happy to see me play — she felt that she’d made the right decision, even though it meant parting with me for a while.”
The school wasn’t an instant success. In the early years, Shanti Bhavan had a significant dropout rate. Parents would often pull children because they wanted them to work or help out in the household “but also because they didn’t know us well or believe in the program,” says Ajit George.
“We started with 24 kids [per class] and would only graduate with a class of 14 or 16.” Today, the school is better at communicating with families, and there are only 2-3 dropouts in a year, he says.
The rigorous curriculum is also an obstacle for some, he says. “Now, we’ve gotten a lot better at giving the academic support necessary to keep up.”
Finding qualified teachers who’ll work in the school’s rural area is another challenge. Shanti Bhavan is located in the village of Baliganapalli, an hour and a half from Bengaluru, the nearest big city. In 2004, the school began offering accommodations to teachers’ families, hoping that this perk will keep them longer.
Despite these concerns, the school has established a great track record of getting its students into university. Every graduate is admitted to a college in India or another country – and true to its mission, Shanti Bhavan continues to support them, paying college tuition fees and living expenses.
“Our commitment to our children is from the first day of school to the first day of work. It’s the only way to ensure they break out of poverty permanently,” Ajit George says.
To achieve that goal, students are encouraged to study STEM or business, the Grinnell professor Patrick Inglis has found. These are high-paying fields in India, and administrators want to ensure that the graduates make enough money to help lift families out of poverty. There are graduates working in business, medicine, engineering and computer science.
In the years ahead, the school could encourage a broader set of careers and interests, says Inglis, including those in the arts and humanities.
The numbers are small … but there’s more to the story
How do you assess the impact of the school? When you look at numbers, it’s fairly small, says Amit Basole, head of the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. Basole, who is not affiliated with the school, points out that there are millions of children, particularly first generation learners — the first in their families to go to school — who don’t get the education and support they need in India.
But there’s a greater context to consider, he says: The school’s graduates serve as role models, giving hope to other children who have watched their parents suffer from caste-based discrimination, with lower caste people facing threats and violence in their communities.
The U.S. class of 2025
In addition to Kusuma attending Middlebury, Naveen, 19 is in the freshman class at Duke University, Vel, 19, is at Stanford and Samuel, 18, has found a place at Dartmouth — all on full scholarships. The rest of the graduating class has found a place in colleges in India.
Naveen says that his father works as a driver and his mother is a farm laborer. When he was a child, they lived in a one-room hut with no running water or electricity.
In his college essay, Naveen wrote: “Dalits are the poorest of the poor, only allowed to perform the most menial of jobs. Food, housing, clothing, school, health-care, debt, teenage marriage — these are the daily challenges of a Dalit family. It’s an overwhelming burden, and with no help and no escape.”
Today, Naveen’s biggest dream is financial freedom: to be able to protect his family from the social abuse that is often related to caste and to provide for them. At Duke, he plans to major in business management, he says, and hopes to become an entrepreneur.
Vel’s family sold pani puri, an Indian street food, in a pushcart. Whenever he was home for the holidays, he would take over, plying the cart through the streets. Now a Stanford freshman, he says he will pursue a degree in chemical engineering.
Environmental concerns are important to him, he says, and his dream is to find a way to effectively repurpose plastic. He supervised Shanti Bhavan’s solar panel installation and encouraged students to pay attention to recycling and composting for the school’s organic garden.
Like Naveen and Vel, Samuel shouldered responsibilities at a young age. At 14, he was helping neighbors fill out resumes and assisting his father in negotiating interest rates on bank loans. His mother was Hindu and his father Christian, he says. They fell in love and their interfaith marriage caused tensions. Their families were opposed to it. The couple struggled, even battled homelessness, as their friends and relatives ostracized them.
Samuel joined Shanti Bhavan at the age of 4 and recalls how his parents missed the bus that was supposed to take them there, after traveling for hours by another bus from their native village in Tamil Nadu. “My father carried me and walked the 10 miles to the school because he didn’t want me to miss our interview. We still talk about that day,” he says.
He is now a freshman at Dartmouth with plans to study computer science.
All four are excited about experiencing life on campus in the U.S.
“The first thing I want to do is visit Walmart,” says Kusuma with a laugh. “I’ve heard so much about it.”