In a country where many girls are discouraged from going to school, Sushma Verma is having anything but a typical childhood.
The 13-year-old girl from a poor family in north India has enrolled in a master’s degree program in microbiology, after her father sold his land to pay for some of his daughter’s tuition in the hope of helping her be a part of India’s growing middle class.
Sushma finished high school at age 7 and earned a college degree at 13 — milestones she said were possible only with the sacrifices and encouragement of her uneducated and impoverished parents.
“They allowed me to do what I wanted to do,” Sushma said in an interview, speaking her native language of Hindi. “I hope that other parents don’t impose their choices on their children.”
Sushma lives a very modest life with her three younger siblings and her parents — eating, sleeping and studying alongside them in a cramped single-room apartment in the city of Lucknow.
Their only income is her father’s daily wage of less than $3.50 for working on construction sites. Their most precious possessions include a study table and a secondhand computer.
It is not a great atmosphere for studying, she admitted. “There are a lot of dreams. . . . All of them cannot be fulfilled.”
But having no television and little else at home has advantages, she said. “There is nothing to do but study.”
Sushma began her studies last month at Lucknow’s B.R. Ambedkar Central University.
Her first choice was to become a doctor, but she cannot take the test to qualify for medical school until she is 18.
“So I opted for the [master’s of science], and then I will do a doctorate,” she said.
Sushma — a skinny, poised girl with shoulder-length hair — is not the first high achiever in her family. Her older brother graduated from high school at 9 and in 2007 became one of India’s youngest computer science graduates at 14.
In another family, Sushma might not have been able to follow him into higher education. Millions of Indian children are still not enrolled in grade school, and many of them are girls whose parents choose to hold them back in favor of advancing their sons. Some from conservative village cultures are expected only to get married, for which their families will go into debt to give cash and gifts to their daughter’s new family.
For Sushma, her father sold his only pieces of land for about $400 to cover some of her school fees.
“There was opposition from my family and friends, but I did not have any option,” said her father, Tej Bahadur Verma.
The rest of Sushma’s school fees will come from a charity that gave her a grant of about $12,600. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International decided to help after seeing a local television program on Sushma.
“The girl is an inspiration for students from elite backgrounds” who are born with everything, he said.