Chennai, India – Harshali Nagrale is a first generation student of India’s Dalit community, formerly known as “the untouchables”, who have faced systemic persecution from upper-caste Hindus for centuries.
After doing extensive work in public policy and educating marginalized communities, the 25-year-old now wanted to take more specialized training in the field at a foreign university.
While gaining admission into a master’s degree program in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy at the prestigious Royal Holloway College in London, she ran into a roadblock.
There was no way the daughter of a retired factory worker and stay-at-home mom could afford the $ 54,000 expense.
Nagrale’s attempts to obtain scholarships set up by the Indian government as well as some foreign organizations failed.
It was then that she decided to try an unconventional method that has been showing results for underprivileged students like her lately.
Nagrale set up a fundraising campaign on an online platform called Milaap, detailing her work and details of her classes she wanted to join, and asked for financial support from her community.
“I am the first woman to graduate in my village and my family,” reads her appeal on the crowdfunding platform.
“I am a first generation lawyer and it is indeed a proud moment for me to be offered this course at this prestigious university. “
The movement worked. Nagrale has received an overwhelming response from Dalit overseas students, community groups and activists.
She was able to raise 67% of her target amount and is now working on her visa formalities. She said she would fund the rest of her living expenses through part-time jobs in the UK.
Option for less privileged aspirants
In recent days, hashtags such as #SumittoOxford and #sendAbhishektoCambridge have popped up on Indian social media, as more than a dozen aspirants like Nagrale seek donations for higher education at leading Western universities. .
In the past, some deserving students from poor families have been helped by government, philanthropists and NGOs, but these scholarships are limited and extremely competitive.
In addition, Indian banks do not provide student loans unless those seeking financial support provide a guarantee.
Previously, part of the support came from universities a student wanted to join in the form of scholarships and endowments. But the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has seen a decline in Western universities offering aid to foreign students.
In such a scenario, crowdfunding has become an option, primarily for students from less advantaged families, or those who have lost a winning family member.
As more and more people have started asking for help, many activists and organizations from marginalized communities are supporting their campaigns by retweeting their appeals or helping them find donors.
Activists said they support these students because they believe education is the only way they can become self-reliant and improve their lives, or the lives of their communities.
Study community issues
Many students who fund their studies at Western universities say they intend to study courses related to the struggles of their communities.
Archana Rupwate, a 34-year-old Dalit lawyer based in the western metropolis of Mumbai, works on human rights and criminal justice issues.
She was admitted to Viadrina University in Frankfurt, Germany for a Masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. But being the daughter of a farmer, her only option was to seek help from strangers.
“Although I received offers of admission from several reputable universities, I did not get a full scholarship,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So a friend of mine and a former colleague suggested that since I’ve done so much human rights work already, I should try crowdfunding. “
Rupwate set up a fundraising campaign on another crowdfunding platform called Ketto, and said she managed to meet 80% of her needs in “just eight days.”
“I think most of the people who admired my work have made a donation – my Dalit clients and friends who have settled in the world and have achieved something in their lives and really want other students in the community to achieve their goals. dreams, ”she said.
Maknoon Wani, a 23-year-old student from Indian Kashmir, says he wants to study the effects of the internet and social media in fueling religious or ethnic hatred in society, and has found a suitable master’s degree in Oxford, for which he now needs financial help.
“The cut-off of the internet in our region in 2019 and 2020 bothered me a lot. My dad suffered losses because he couldn’t operate his retail business while I couldn’t attend online classes during my last year of college, ”he told Al Jazeera by phone.
“I have admission but don’t have the funds, so I decided to set up a fundraiser on Milaap,” he said.
But Wani has yet to increase the target amount to $ 58,000.
“I cannot defer admission. I am really motivated to take the course and I really hope I can make it, ”he said.
Peak of people looking for funds
Indian crowdfunding platforms including Milaap and Ketto say the number of campaigns on their websites launched by people seeking help with higher education has increased dramatically in recent years.
Milaap co-founder Mayukh Choudhury told Al Jazeera that its website hosted more than 11,000 education-related fundraisers in 2020, up from 7,000 a year earlier. He said education was the second highest category for which campaigns are put in place after medical emergencies.
“While nonprofits and communities fundraising to support the education of disadvantaged children are common, many young people are also seeking crowdfunding support to pursue higher education,” Choudhury said.
On June 3, Dalit musician and activist Sumeet Samos funded a staggering $ 50,000 in less than a day for his studies at Oxford.
“The fundraiser, posted on our crowdfunding platform, was overwhelmingly received,” Choudhury said, adding that all campaigns on his website were “verified by a dedicated team” and after approving the documents relevant.
“In case of fundraising to cover tuition fees, relevant documents from institutions such as appeal letter, acceptance letter and other relevant documents are shared on the campaign page”, a- he declared.
Namrata Pandey, an education consultant based in New Delhi, says crowdfunding still cannot cover the full cost of education and living abroad.
“Many universities, especially in the United States, fund students from marginalized communities if they are academically brilliant, talented, and bring an unusual perspective,” she said.
“Failure of government programs”
However, not all people who set up a fundraiser manage to get the necessary funds. Very often, what makes the avant-garde is activism, a network of friends and supporters and a proven track record of working in the chosen field.
While fundraising may seem like an easy way to raise money for education, putting your life story online for the whole world to see can come at a cost.
The ethics of crowdfunding for education spending has also been questioned. Many believe that such an expensive education should not be pursued by people from marginalized communities, and question whether such expensive degrees are worth it.
Some fundraisers have also suffered a backlash from social media, with users calling them “beggars”, “selfish” and even accusing them of hiding facts about themselves or their families.
Recently, Ansab Amir, a graduate of Aligarh Muslim University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, applied for funds after gaining admission for a Masters in Journalism program at Goldsmiths University in London.
But the 22-year-old aspiring journalist decided to end his fundraising on Milaap and return the money raised to donors because he and his family “had been subjected to abuse, harassment and threats and [my] mental health has been damaged by it all ”.
Dalit activist and writer Cynthia Stephen says most government scholarships are designed to appear to help marginalized communities, but students rarely manage to get them.
“To deny a student from a marginalized community the opportunity to rise up is to deny him his human dignity and his constitutional right,” she told Al Jazeera, calling crowdfunding for higher education. of “good trend”.
“But it is also a measure of the failure of government programs to support marginalized communities.”