- Seema Kumari, 17, a football graduate of the Yuwa class of 2021, will attend the prestigious university this fall.
It was 2012 and a young Seema Kumari was out walking in her village with her uncle, cutting grass for cows, when she saw a group of girls laughing, running around and playing football. The very next day, she asked her cousin to help her join Yuwa school and 11 years later, with the help of that very institution, Kumari, 17, is set to become the first member of her family to go to college. The Yuwa program works with girls from impoverished families in rural Jharkhand, to provide them with a goal, an education and a means to life rather than becoming child brides.
Kumari, who hails from Dahu, a small village in Ormanjhi, Jharkhand, an hour away from its well-known capital Ranchi, recently made headlines after securing a full scholarship to the prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A graduate of Yuwa class of 2021, Kumari has also been accepted by Ashok University, India; Middlebury College, Vermont; and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Fighting against all odds, including the very basic right of every child to be educated to secure this monumental and coveted scholarship, Kumari’s inspiring story has taken the internet by storm. Her parents are illiterate. They didn’t have the luxury of being educated as they rely on subsistence farming to make ends meet. To supplement their meagre earnings, her father also works at a local thread factory to provide for the family.
But Kumari was destined for a different life. She joined the Yuwa school in 2012 and after learning the sport started working as a football coach to pay her school fees. Despite being ridiculed for wearing shorts, she played football for years.
Kumari avoided child marriage and defended her right to an education to realize her dreams. The culmination of almost a decade of hard work is her Harvard acceptance letter. Kumar was initially not planning to apply to Harvard till last July, but changed her mind when applications became test optional. “Harvard is a dream come true,” a delighted Kumari told The Quint.
In her college essay she wrote about her experiences growing up in Jharkhand. She shared one such anecdote in her essay. “In Jharkhand, a lot of families make and sell rice beer (Hadiya), including mine,”she wrote. “Growing up, it never bothered me when I was younger. But once I attained puberty, men would stare at me and make me uncomfortable. This was very stressful for me.”
In 2018, Kumari was accepted to the Washington University of St. Louis’ Young Leaders Institute for high school students. “After 10 months in the U.S., coming back and having to struggle with these male attitudes, it was so difficult,” she told The Quint. “I tried to stop this practice with the help of Child Helpline and this is what I wrote about in my essay.” Hadiya, unfortunately it is still being practiced although she “hopes it will be stopped one day.”
Clearly, that was the winning formula, as Kumari is U.S. bound in August. Yet to decide on what she would like to major in at Harvard but, she definitely has a vision of her future and what she would like to achieve. “I plan to start an organization for women in my village,” she said in her interviews to India media. “My organization will work to help women start small businesses that would train them to be financially independent. I also want to educate women about their rights and build a bigger network to support women by providing essential vocational skills and knowledge.” In order to achieve this, she plans to pursue a four-year undergraduate program in Sociology or Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, subjects she believes will help her actualize her vision.
With no access to technology or education, Kumari has managed quite a feat. “As a first generation learner, I did not grow up reading books or having access to educational material. For instance, participating in traditional farming, looking after cattle and livestock and nurturing nature” said Kumari, who studied till class VII at the local government school. Her parents are happy but do not know much about the importance of Harvard scholarship. “My parents do not even know the name of this prominent global university and have no idea of what I have achieved.”
Many people, including celebrities, congratulated Kumari on achieving this feat, flooding her with messages on social media, ever since news about her success went viral. Hollywood transplant from Bollywood actress and social media influencer icon Priyanka Chopra Jonas tweeted, “Educate a girl and she can change the world… such an inspiring achievement. Bravo Seema. I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Her tweet cast Kumari into the limelight as it received numerous comments and retweets. Tweeted netizen Pankaj Kumar, “Rightly said. Incredible achievement from this daughter of India without any gold spoon. Well done Seema and let me tell you that your story will inspire millions and much more in time to come. Simply Fantastic.”
As netizen Megha Mehta aptly tweeted, “this is so inspiring! empower a girl and she will lead the future! kudos! @priyankachopra @bollywood_life”
Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya Naveli Nanda, who is an active social media user and is currently spearheading “Project Naveli,” to build a gender-equal world, too showered praises on Kumari. As to the future, Kumari wants plans to return to India to work towards gender equality. “Gender equality is something that my village needs to develop socially. Sensitizing the villagers will reduce injustices against women like gender discrimination, domestic violence, child marriage, etc. It will not only show economic growth but also social development where women will be a part of the decision making in each house.” I guess what they say is true – when girls know their worth, they’re limitless.
Harvard University, widely considered one of the best universities in the world, had a historically low acceptance rate this year due to a record number of applications—only 3.4 percent. Defying all odds, Kumari has secured a place at Harvard during this extremely competitive year.