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Monalisa Barman’s fight for her education

‘Meghalaya to Columbia University is an online campaign that hopes to raise funds to sponsor Monalisa Barman’s education in the U.S.

Monalisa Barman

Earlier this March, Monalisa Barman was elated when she received an offer letter to the Ivy League institute of her dreams. A social worker and researcher with substantial experience working on-ground, Barman is admitted to the master’s program in Public Policy at Columbia University. She possibly is the first woman from her minority Koch tribal community in Meghalaya, India, with an opportunity to study abroad. But she lacks the funds. Not letting that stop her, Barman took to the internet to crowdfund her education.

“For me, it will be a step forward, but it will be a leap for a whole community,” said Barman acknowledging the importance of education and representation for upward social mobility. Her father was among the first few from her community to get a college education and a government job, changing life outcomes for Barman and her siblings.

Although the Indian diaspora emerged as one of the largest immigrant communities globally and in the USA, a negligible percentage of them belong to minority communities like Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis or indigenous peoples (DBA), considered backward classes and castes in India. In 2003, over 90% of them belonged to the dominant caste. This trend is reflected in academia as well. From a lack of monetary resources to social capital, many such hurdles stop these marginalized demographics from venturing abroad for higher education. Barman hopes to break this cycle and pave the way for many young girls like her through her efforts.

“I think people fail to understand [that] these missed opportunities are not accidental; they are systemic,” said Neetisha Besra, a Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy alumni. “[It is] systemic right from the day you are born.” 

Like Barman, Besra also belongs to the Adivasi community and has extensive experience working for grassroots initiatives in her tribal region of Jharkhand, India, before joining the Public Policy master’s program at Harvard.

“It was nothing short of disillusionment to see that very little representation [among the South Asians] came from grassroots leadership,” Besra reflects about her experience in the program.  To address this issue, a group of like-minded individuals, including Besra launched the Equity in Policy Education (EPE), a mentorship program catering to Indian-origin DBA students, she said. “[An initiative] which allows better representation from such communities in an otherwise elite public policy space.” 

Currently, Barman is one among the 32 DBA students EPE is mentoring, under whose guidance she set up the fundraiser. With the help of mentors from over 15 reputed public policy schools worldwide, they are trying to reduce this achievement gap one student at a time. 

“Although they [DBA students] have a very, very good profile, and the case in point we have is that of Monalisa, they do not get a scholarship,” said Besra. She further stresses the need to sensitize American Universities to the dynamics of caste oppression in India: especially while considering their financial aid applications. 

Taking her father’s lead who was committed to working for the development and preservation of Koch’s identity, Barman became a social worker. “I think my father always worked a lot for the community, she said. “He always told me [that] ‘whatever you do, remember, you have to come back serve your people.’”

A former law student, Barman’s interest in public policy sparked while pursuing an internship for a non-profit. “I was motivated to work for an NGO [Non-Government Organization]. And my first internship was for a local NGO here in Meghalaya.” Witnessing firsthand the impact of her work for those with the least amount of access to justice strengthened her resolve to seek more such assignments.

Barman also experienced racism and discrimination during her stay in other parts of India for her undergraduate course. All this led to her changing career and pursuing a MA in Social work focusing on Dalit and Tribal Action—emphasizing an anti-oppressive framework.  

Since 2017, she has worked on grassroots actions to combat human rights violations. Her more recent work focuses on reproductive and abortion rights in the tribal regions of Northeast India, the regions to which she belongs. She facilitated the filing of multiple petitions against public institutions prone to caste and gender discrimination.

“With the kind of work I do,” she said, “I have taken up jobs with even salary cut…I just loved the work the organization was doing.”

“With my legal expertise and social sciences knowledge in the field, an advanced public policy degree will unlock so many opportunities to aid thousands of other SC/ST [DBA] women to achieve education and health facilities, especially in the northeastern part of the country,” writes Barman on her fundraiser.

Historically the DBA communities were denied rights to education and property. Since independence, they are the beneficiaries of many affirmative actions like reservations or quota systems in educational institutions and public sector and land-reform policies. Yet, the conditions of many DBA members remain dire. To the present day, they experience low literacy rates and high proportions of school dropouts. According to a Times of India Survey, only one out of every ten college graduates is a Dalit or Adivasi—very few of them can afford an overseas education. And those who can enroll in a foreign university opt for better-paying STEM careers with quicker returns explains Besra.  

“It boils down to only those people who could afford that education [and] who could go abroad, further making that [Public Policy] space even more elite,” said Besra.

Securing a student loan, too, has many challenges for these populations, said Barman. She lives in a tribal region falling under a provision called Schedule Six—enforced to safeguard the Adivasi community’s interests. But it requires additional paperwork to use their allotted lands as collateral: a mandatory requirement in India. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic further complicated this process. On the other hand, those from the privileged and traditionally land-owning communities have a more straightforward process.

Parallelly, Barman also worked on applying for grants on the home turf and reached out to local administration, without much success.

Unlike her South Asian peers, Barman hopes to return to India immediately upon graduation to continue serving her community. She must raise funds to avoid large student debts to continue the work she is presently doing. 

Barman expresses her gratitude towards all her donors and netizens who amplified her
campaign, especially Instagram users @thebigfatbao, @tanrus, @dhara133,
@climatedoomstoryexpert, and @akanksha7s. Yet, she still has a long way to go.

“I am still struggling with the finances,” said Barman. She raised 46% of the target amount (as of the date of this publication) with covers the tuition for the first year. “What about my next year? How do I manage next year?” she wonders. 

With the August 15 crowdfund deadline fast approaching, Barman is racing against time. 

Priyanka Suryaneni
Priyanka Suryanenihttp://prisuryaneni.com
Priyanka Suryaneni is a documentarian and a social justice reporter with a deep passion for reporting uncovered issues. With over a decade-and-half of experience as a video producer, she is keen on telling stories that positively portray marginalized communities in both countries. Her work mainly revolves around local politics, grassroots initiatives, and equity. She can found hosting rooms on the social media app Clubhouse about visual storytelling and social issues in her free time.
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