BAR HARBOR, Maine — This time of year, college seniors across the country are getting ready to don their mortar boards and robes, eyes wide with anticipation as they open the doors to a world of opportunity beyond their undergraduate educations.
One of them, College of the Atlantic student and Nepal native Surya Karki, has not waited for his bachelor’s degree to start helping others in his home country receive opportunities of their own. This spring he officially opened three tuition-free schools in rural Nepal for children between the ages of 4 and 14, and he plans to open three more by July.
Within the next four years, Karki, 24, hopes to have opened a total of 35 schools in his home country, giving 5,000 poor Nepalese children the chance to have the same educational opportunities he has had since receiving his first scholarship 15 years ago.
“Education has been very close to me, close to my heart,” Karki said Friday, sharply dressed while sitting in a booth at College of the Atlantic’s dining hall. “I’m the first in my family to go to university, and the first in my village.”
Karki will be among 83 students receiving bachelor’s degrees in human ecology from College of the Atlantic on Saturday. The commencement ceremony is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. and will feature author and environmental justice advocate Barry Lopez as the keynote speaker.
Karki has traveled far since growing up poor in the Sankhuwasabha District of eastern Nepal.
Raised by a single mother, he helped his mother grow subsistence crops such as corn and potatoes to feed himself and his younger sister. He grew up in a two-room stone house with a thatched roof and learned how to help tend the family goats and wield a machete. His mother, he recalled, cooked over an open fire.
“We barely had food to eat in the evening,” Karki said. “Shoes were distant [unfamiliar] things.”
But opportunity came knocking at the age of 9 when, at his mother’s encouragement, he applied for and received a scholarship to attend a boarding school in Kathmandu, the country’s capital, he said.
“I never knew buses existed,” Karki said of his childhood. “The first time we went to the bus station, we walked for seven hours.”
After graduating high school, Karki went abroad on another scholarship, attending Simon Bolivar United World College in Barinas, Venezuela, for two years in pursuit of an associate’s degree in agriculture. From there he returned for a year to Nepal, where he helped to found a school called Maya Universe Academy in 2011.
The following year, after earning a scholarship to College of the Atlantic, he came to Maine.
While at College of the Atlantic, with mentorship from professor Jay Friedlander, he became interested in how sustainable business practices can promote economic development. He said Friedlander — who he described as a father figure to him — seemed to know his thoughts and had a knack for asking Karki the right questions.
“He never told me I had to do something,” Karki said. “He just asked me the questions that were needed for me to convince myself that it was the right thing that I wanted to do.”
In 2014, Karki and others founded the Diyalo Foundation to help promote and fund primary education, sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy projects in his home country.
Last year, he aimed to establish a rechargeable rickshaw station business in Nepal — but a devastating earthquake changed those plans. He decided establishing new schools should be his first focus.
Each of the three schools that opened this past year, all of which are at least three hours walking distance from each other, have between 150 and 200 students divided up among four to eight classrooms, for a three-school total of about 500 students, Karki said. The idea is to build schools in communities that want them and do not already have viable government-funded schools, he said.
The government-run schools are “very dysfunctional,” according to Karki.
“Teachers don’t come at all to school,” he said. “Students go to school because they have to go.”
The communities where the Diyalo schools are built provide labor and materials for the schools.
The Nepal government this spring agreed to support the initiative for five years, paying the salaries of two or three teachers at each school, while Diyalo Foundation funds at least three positions at each. The teachers hired for these new private schools, he said, are young, tend to be dissatisfied with the government-run schools, and want to reform the country’s education system from the ground up.
Karki said Diyalo has a goal of raising $1.5 million in the next five years to pay for teacher salaries. After five years, the government will pay the salaries for all the teachers at each of the schools founded by the nonprofit, he said.
United World Schools, a London-based nonprofit, is helping to fund the effort, he added.
Karki said getting the project off the ground has not been easy. Political conditions in Nepal are not stable, and government officials at first did not take him seriously when he approached them about helping to staff his private, tuition-free schools for rural children.
“They usually tend to think I am joking around,” he said of his initial meetings with officials. “I guess my persistence is what made them realize I was actually serious about helping them change the fate of education in Nepal.”
And he said the benefits come rather quickly. Many poor families who rely on subsistence farming, as his once did, do not have the ability to do simple arithmetic. Children who learn math effectively, he said, can help their families right away.
“It makes a huge difference in a family’s life when a child is able to say, ‘Dad, 10 rupees and 10 rupees is 20 rupees,’” he said.
Karki said he is focused on improving education now, but hopes to have a more direct impact on economic development in Nepal. Later this summer, he will travel to China as one of the first Stephen A. Schwarzman Scholars in the graduate program of the new Schwarzman College in Tsinghua. Eventually, he hopes to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“Five years from now, I see myself immersed in the Nepalese [economic] development framework. I would like to see myself leading the country [someday],” he said. “I would like to see why things don’t work when they could. Maybe become the prime minister of Nepal — who knows?”
Karki acknowledged it is a lofty goal, but he added that setting a high bar for himself has worked pretty well so far.
“I was always told to aim high,” he said. “You might reach somewhere nearby or [perhaps] you will surpass your aim.”