A Conversation with Racchita Aryal, Former Trainee, Partnership in Education Program, Kathmandu, Nepal

April 20, 2021

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in April 2021 graduate student Tierra Hatfield (G’22) interviewed Racchita Aryal, a former trainee with the Partnership in Education (PiE) program at St. Xavier’s College (SXC) in Kathmandu, Nepal. In this interview, Aryal discusses her experience as a former PiE trainee and reflects on studying at SXC during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, like your background and your educational history?

Yes, so I live in a neighborhood nearby Kathmandu, and I studied in one of the good schools here in Kathmandu. I also completed my high school from the same school, so I studied there for 15 years. And I joined St. Xavier’s College in the year 2017 in order to pursue my bachelor's degree. I'm currently a fourth-year student in the same institution, about to be a graduate soon.

How did you first find out about the PiE program?

It was during my first year when I got to know about PiE, and I had just joined the college. Back then, we usually had fieldwork, you know we have fieldwork in our college, so I got to know about PiE during that time. During my first year, I was based in another NGO, and I needed to change, so after that it was in my second year when I joined PiE. I was really interested because, you know, they used to be kids and I really enjoy being with kids, so I asked our head of department to make sure that she keeps me in PiE.

And how long were you a trainee in the PiE program?

I was there for about 14 months. So before that I had two months of training, and we were giving training and then only we were asked to join PiE during that time. I’m not sure what they do now, but then it was like that, during that time. It was in the year 2018 when I joined PiE.

Going back to before the COVID-19 crisis, would you mind walking me through what your typical day at the college and at the PiE program was like?

So my day used to start at 6:00 am in the morning, and at 6:00 am we had to reach the college, because PiE starts at 6:30 am, so I used to find it very difficult during that time, you know waking up early in the morning because I'm not a early bird. So it was difficult for me, but then whenever I saw the children and during PiE, you know there was a different energy. The children were always so enthusiastic to learn and to meet us, so yeah, it used to be really very fruitful. The morning used to be really very fruitful, and I totally enjoyed it, and I must tell you that it was one of the best years of my life. And then usually it ended at 8:30 am. 

So after that we used to have a session with the volunteers and the trainees, where we discuss about what happened during the morning classes that day. Like taking the class, it used to be a normal class, we taught the children about things that they didn't know and about things that they wanted to learn. So it used to be a normal class and it used to be fun. We used to show them videos because the children that went to PiE, they are from government schools, you know, they are the marginalized students living inside the Kathmandu Valley. They come from a very poor background, and their parents are uneducated, so it's quite difficult for the parents to provide good education to the children. 

So in Kathmandu, if we talk about the schooling, it is particularly divided into two categories, you know, there is government and there is private schools. Education in the private schools really good, it's really good, but then government school is also improving, but it cannot reach the level in which the private school is. Also the children’s future are controlled by the lack of a good educational foundation. Also their parents are also illiterate, so yeah, it used to be difficult for us to teach them because you know the children were in sixth, seventh grade, but they didn't know the A-B-C-D, and I always wanted to how they were able to reach to Grade 6 or 7 in the government schools when they don't even know the basics. 

So yeah, that was the scenario. It was very difficult for us to teach them, so we used to use different measures. We used to show them videos, we used to allow them to use a computer, and we had a small library built in our office for them. We really did as much as possible in order to make them learn. So yeah, that was the basics of PiE, and then after that we used to discuss about the children in our state sharing session.

On Saturdays we used to have exercises for the children, where they could come to the college and where they could play and enjoy with us. It used to be fruitful during that time, but it was also very much difficult because we didn't get holidays, it was a bit difficult to wake up in the morning. You know, it was be difficult waking up at 6:00 am, and then accomplishing by session at 8:30 am, and then after the sharing session used to be until 9:00 am in the morning, and after that, in 9:30 am, we we were asked to join our own classes at the college, because they usually start at 9:30 am, so it was very difficult to manage time during that time.

Our classes used to be normal, we have 45-minutes lecture classes, and we use to have particularly five or six classes in a day in college. So the college, it ended at around 3:00 pm or 3:30 pm in the afternoon, and during that time, yeah that that used to be a normal then after that, too, I used to work. I did part-time work during that time, so it was very difficult for me because I had to reach the work at 4:30pm. And when I returned back to home, it used to be 10:00 pm in the evening, so yeah it was very difficult for me, you know my day started at 6:00 am in the morning and then that's even during Saturdays, we have to reach PiE at 10:00 in the morning, and then we had to contribute just two hours, but then it used to be difficult to manage time as we didn't get holidays and I use to run around every day in a week.

How many days a week did you go to the PiE program? Were you there every day?

Every day. Every day, Sunday to Friday it used to be from 6:00 am to 8:30 am in the morning, and on Saturdays we had to go through the ending in the morning, we ended at 12:00 pm in the afternoon.

Could you tell me a little bit about how the PiE program incorporates both academic aspects and social and personal development. How has the program impacted the students or helped them to do better in their government schools?

We have the main focus of PiE during my time, during back in 2018, and I guess it's same today, was to build learning habits among the students. You know the students who came to PiE, they didn't have a particular learning habit. So what we were asked during that time was to focus on building learning habits for the children. Our main focus in the academic sector was to build a learning habit so that the children, you know they were backward in the society, so we focused in building the learning habit. Then talking about social development, we had different curricular activities for them. To mention a few, in order to have our holistic development in the children, we conducted various programs, such as on Saturdays they could come and they could enjoy whatever thing they wanted to be or whatever things they wanted to learn. 

On Saturdays we didn't have any educational stuff running in the institution, we didn't focus on education, but what we did was we organized different kind of activities—such as playing chess, playing chess, playing games—because the children, they're not so privileged to know about such activities. They don't know what chess is, you know so they were always really very enthusiastic, they were really very encouraged to come to play games that they hadn't seen in their entire life. Also during Saturdays, we also conducted movies. You know movies session for them, where we showed them different kinds of movies, because they're not so privileged to enjoy movies in theaters or enjoy movies at their homes because they don't have a TV, you know, hardly only few students have TV, so yeah we used to involve them in such kind of activities. 

Our school is a school of learning, but then it also builds their personality. We conducted different kinds of competition for the children and also we conducted poem competition where the children who are good in literature, they wrote poems and they performed it in front of us. And then we conducted sports meets where there could be any kind of sport that they are interested in. Then there was a culture program. We conducted our cultural program with the children because they came from a diverse background, so we give them a platform, we give them stage to perform about their culture and showcase us about what the culture looks like. 

And then we used to have summer camp. Some of the children, you know, during the summer holidays they came to PiE and they played games and we had summer activities for them. We had different learning session, such as art competition, poem writing, preparation classes, and speaking classes. Summer camp used to be fun, and then we also conducted outing picnic for the children and they enjoyed with us. So yeah, such kind of activities, I think it developed the overall personality also. There was a competition where we gave the children a topic on the spot and they had to, we give them a few minutes, about five minutes, to prepare a speech. So yeah, such activities it help them develop their personality.

How many students and trainees are in the PiE program?

Not so many students, I think, during that time we had 30 students. There was enough irregularity among some of the students, but there were a bunch of students who were always present and then there used to be a bunch of students who used to be absent most of the time. So, we were three trainees in each particular class, and talking about volunteers we had five to six volunteers.

How do these kids learn about the PiE program and how does that process usually work for someone to join?

So, usually how this process works is when a student comes to PiE they talk about PiE in their [government/ public] schools among their friends, so then the friends, they're really very interested in PiE and then they used to bring them to. So this is how a lot of students ended up in PiE. Also they used to conduct a rally in the settlement, yeah, they used to kind of rally in a certain area where it was just a walk in a group around the settlements of Kathmandu Valley. And then I think the parents were a bit interested in what's going on and then they learned about PiE. Plus, we used to, I think my seniors, they used to visit the areas in the settlements in order to actually meet the parents who send their children to the PiE program. 

Could you tell me a little more about the rallies that PiE does in the settlement areas? Who conducts the rallies and the visits to the settlements?

Yeah, I think they used to take the children. The children would do it along with the trainees and the volunteers, they all used to go for a walk. It was just from about 30 minutes in the morning, in order to [raise] awareness of people in the settlement areas about the program, that these are still existing and you can send your children to the PiE.

What also happened was students from private schools, yeah, what they did was they also attended PiE telling us that they were from government school. This also happened, so after that what we started was an admission into the PiE program. We also started an admissions process because there are a lot of students and it's a bit difficult for us to visit each and everybody's home—you know, we used to have a home visit program in order to check where the kids they come from, but then it was difficult for us to visit all the homes. So we started an admission program where we brought, we invited the kids' parents in and checked about the children's background, their official backgrounds, in order to take admission of the children. If he had a particular doubt in a particular parent, then we used to go for a home visit in order to check whether we should enroll that child or not. We could easily differentiate between a private school student and a government school student, you know. 

Did you ever visit the settlements for rallies or conduct house visits? And if so, could you tell me a little bit about what they were like and what you did? 

Yeah, I did so many. The home’s [of PiE students] were tiny, mini-cottages, you know, it was, it was just a cottage and it was, if I had to reflect on it today, I wonder how they stay there because it's a tiny mini-room and everything is inside. The bed is there, the sitting area is there, the kitchen is there, you know everything is there, and it's really very congested. The condition that the children stay in is really very heartbreaking. And if I had to talk about what we talked to parents, so we just talked about the normal things like how their children perform at home, how they are in school, how do the parents help their children in education. And you know, just basic stuff like that. We didn't take much time, we just used to see the condition of the children and learn about what background they come from. We used to ask very simple questions to the parents, not so much, just about how the children are performing and if they have seen some kind of improvement in their children and how the schooling of their child is going. You know just basic questions.

In your opinion, how has this aspect of the PiE program contributed to the success of the students in the program or in their government school education? 

Yeah, the children felt more connected to us. You know some children used to be reserved, they used to be very reserved, but then when we went to home visits and when we met their parents, they opened up more to us, they were more connected to us. I think there was improved learning, and it was key to curiosity in the children, because then they wanted to learn more from us, they wanted to learn more regarding what we could provide to them. So yeah they were more interested.

What was it like when the COVID-19 crisis hit in Nepal? Could you describe what you were thinking and what happened with your studies?

So, I was working a lot. I love working and then when the pandemic happened, I didn't actually take holidays before, but then I was in need of a holiday, I really wanted a holiday, so what I thought when the pandemic started was that I actually thought it would last for about a week or two. And you know, I thought I would get enough time for myself, finally. After three years of joining college, for the first time I'll be getting three weeks of break, that's what I thought. But then it was something different. The pandemic [online] classes were for about more than a year, and again the lockdown started again. So initially, I actually thought it would just last for a week or two.

What type of decisions did the college make in response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Yeah, I’m still talking about my university, my college—I think it did a commendable job. Because in the country, you know a lot of students, they're having a loss of a year in their education. You know that this is happening, but then in my college, I think it's very good because they didn't let us have any kind of loss in our studies and the college took immediate action. For about a month, for about 25 days, we weren't given any information because I think maybe the college was preparing something, but then after the twenty-fifth day, they started online classes and after that everything went smoothly. The examinations were conducted online, and so I think our university, our college, did a commendable job in this. Yeah a lot of universities, they are at a loss right now, except for ours.

Have you seen any difference in the response to the COVID crisis between the private schools and the public government schools in Kathmandu?

Yeah, the government school, they are struggling. Why? Because what happens is that the privileged ones can contribute, and our family can pay fees to send their children to private schools. You know the education in private school is what the parents believe is actually good. It's good in government schools, too, but then people don't usually prefer sending their children to government school. And in government schools, the fees are very less. And the teaching staff, you know the teachers are good, but then they're not as good as in private schools. 

In private schools, there can be conducted the online classes to the children, parents can actually afford online classes, they can afford internet, and they can afford laptop or phones. For the children in the government schools, so the parents are not being able to provide classes, or to provide the gadgets for the children like computers or the internet facilities for the children. Because of that, the children are lagging behind. This was the reason why the government actually opened schools first, because the children are suffering. They are suffering immensely, you know, they're not being able to take classes. It's a different scenario in the valley, you know in Kathmandu, or in the capital, it's a different scenario here as the government school student can sometimes afford phones, but then talking about the rural parts of Nepal, a major roadblock is that they don't even have internet access in the village there—they don't know what internet is, they don't know what mobile phone is, you know, so it the condition over there is really bad for that.

Do you know if or how the PiE program has been able to support the students through the crisis?

Yeah, I guess there was no action taken, I'm not sure about that. I didn't have contact with the PiE program after I left, but then I do have contact with my students because they keep on messaging me asking various things so I, I do have contacts with the children. But according to what the current state of the program is, I don't think there was any help provided by PiE during the pandemic time. Maybe. Yeah, because it is run by students, like us, you know, with the help of the college. So it's only possible if the college took action, um, you know if they call for action, then it's only possible for our students to work, and I didn't think during that time they took action.

Could you tell me more about how decisions that the schools and university have taken in Kathmandu Valley affected students in general?

I would like to talk about the mental health of the children in this one. Because you know, what happened was in the past we were talking about the grading and high school students, and they gave a lot of priority in education, so they gave a lower priority in health. So what happened was there was a day the government declared a lockdown, and national lockdown, right before our Grade 10 students will have their written examination, the school-leaving examination. It's considered to be one of the biggest exams in Nepal, you know, the examination is considered to be the biggest examination. And then they cancelled the examination the night or day before and declared the national lockdown right at 8:00 pm in the evening. 

I think this gave a lot of mental pressure to the children because they weren't given the next date when the exam would be conducted, and this happened for about five to six months that they weren't given a date. So, you know, the children, they were not told to keep studying or not, and it was after four or five months that the government declared not to take the examinations. But meanwhile, the children were pressured with whether they should study, so there was an immense tension among the students. It was the same scenario among the Grade 11 and 12 students, they weren't given a proper, particular date, and this happened for almost eight months. You know, for eight months, the children, they were suffering from depression, they were suffering, whether to study or not. 

And, yeah, it was very difficult for those students and even talking about the university, I think it's really working hard in order to not let the children suffer, and for our examinations they conducted it online. It was only our university that did this. But we have different universities. The top university in Kathmandu, it's one of the oldest university, but then the students over there are facing a loss of a year. My friends who study there told me that they are suffering because they've already lost a year of studies, because it's not conducted classes and it's not conducted online examinations during that time. So now, particularly in this case of the recent time, they have conducted examinations, but then the actions were not done earlier, and they took a lot of time. Always waiting for them to decide whether to take classes or to take examinations or not, so, you know, the situation was really chaotic for these universities and the children. I think this gave a lot of pressure to the children because they were losing a year of their study.

And in another way, the government isn't taking any action, so it was a bit difficult. But now, the government has planned to take the examination in the past few months, you know they've already taken the examination, but then the pressure that was in the beginning of the crisis was really very difficult. It was really chaotic for the students.

Could you describe more about your experience as a student at St. Xavier’s College during the crisis?

Yeah, I'm really grateful to my college, because for my friends from other schools or other colleges, you know, it has been a lot.

So my college, it kind of provided us with skill classes, you know they provided us with our lab classes online. And also where we discuss about the problems that we are facing. I wonder if they did it to my juniors, but for us they conducted a motivational class once a week where we discussed about the things that were affecting us. So, yeah, we did talk about the mental health issues and about what we felt during that time, so it was something good that my college did. It helped me to realize that I'm not the only one who thinks about particular things and there are many people like me who are suffering.

Did you ever come back to the college for in-person classes during the period the lockdowns were lifted?

Yes, I did. It started from January, but sadly it's again closed. Yeah, it has decided to close now, you know, two to three days ago I was going to my college, but now, now the cases are increasing, so it has decided to shut down the college again.

But when we went, it was normal, it was just that we used to wear a mask and they kept sanitizers, but otherwise it was just like before. There was no social distancing, they ran the college just like how it used to run before. So yeah, it felt like we didn't have the pandemic anymore, but then, now they've decided to shut down.

How has the transition back to online classes been?

We haven't started the classes yet. It's from tomorrow, but then I think it will be easier for us, it will be easier for all the students. Yeah. 

Is there anything that you would change about the decisions that the college took during the crisis?

No actually not, I think. The college is doing a commendable job, it's actually working for our betterment. You know, when I compare, I've already said this, but when I compare our university with the other university, I think our university is the only one who has worked so much in order to help us not lose our academic year. So, I think I wouldn't change anything, but I'm talking about my university, but then the other universities in Nepal should really improve themselves.

What type of improvements do you think the other universities should take?

More online classes, and they should enable the examinations for the children, you know, things like that.

Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experiences with me. I really appreciate it.

Yeah, sure. I hope it would be helpful to you.

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