But, studying hard is not enough to get admission to a good college, especially for software engineering. Once the school got over, most of my friends left for colleges in Kolkata to pursue higher education. I couldn’t financially afford to go to any of those colleges despite my good marks in school.
All my cousins who were doing well professionally further fuelled my aspirations to grow. I enrolled in B.Com in a local college in Kishanganj while constantly looking for part-time jobs like sales girl or teaching. The quality of education was so poor that even after a year of college, I hardly knew anything about the subjects I was reading. I was desperate to change the status quo.
One of the local NGOs – Project Potential helped me find opportunities that could help me live upto my potential. I got to know about Navgurukul, an NGO currently based in Bengaluru, which offers a fully-funded residential program for learning software engineering, with guaranteed jobs in the corporate sector or startups. The organisation was young and had just started their first girls batch in Delhi. I immediately gave its entrance exam and was ecstatic when I got selected.
This was my golden chance to get bigger opportunities and I had to convince my family to let me pursue this. Once they were convinced, overcoming the constant criticism by my relatives was another challenge.
“Kuch nahi kar payegi yeh ladki, time aur life waste karegi bahar jakar(This girl won’t achieve anything. She will just waste her time and life)” they would say. These remarks instilled a lot of self-doubt in me.
Nonetheless, I went to Delhi to join Navgurukul. It was everything that a regular college or school is not – it was driven by us, the students. The biggest surprise was that we did not have exams or the pressure of grades. There was also no notion of authority because we did not have teachers. We all did peer-learning – mentor each other and learn at our own pace. The environment there welcomed vulnerability and encouraged open conversations about almost everything.
The culture of learning was not driven by competition, but by cooperation. It was integral to all of us to live as a family instead of as a class of 10 girls trying to do something big in their lives. It constantly challenged each one of us to break the moulds that bound us.
Like others, I used to take many initiatives within the community to help it grow. For example, I remember I was often given a location on Google Map and asked to go get things on my own for the centre. Back home, my parents would not let me go alone anywhere other than college. Here, I was not only making decisions related to expenses and other resources but was also travelling on my own.
As trivial as it may seem to many, this simple act of being trusted fully for being on your own made all the difference in my education at Navgurukul. And this was just a start!
With every decision I took or every time I mentored my peers, my self-doubt started melting away. This initiative-taking ability was of great help later when my mother was diagnosed with severe liver disease. We had no money for the treatment, I went around Delhi asking for help, I got an appointment for surgery in AIIMS, met high ranking officials and sought a financial waiver. My father was astonished by the way I handled the situation. The only sad part is we lost Maa due to some complications, even though the procedure went seemingly normal.
At Navgurukul, I lost the old Annu and discovered a much braver version of myself. I learned various programming languages, English, and various aspects of personality development. I then got selected for training at an MNC named MindTree.
I was very excited when I first joined the training campus. It was very sophisticated and everything – including someone making our beds and offering meals – was delivered to us as a guest service, which was quite a new experience.
But, the new feeling soon turned into self-doubt; I used to wonder whether I belonged in that set-up. Everyone around me was an engineering graduate from good colleges and at least 4-5 years older to me. In addition, there was the economic divide – they spoke well, wore better clothes, acted way more casually in this new posh environment, seemed far more educated. It felt like I was in some parallel world.
With every passing day, I had this growing fear that I was not good enough to be there. My peers from Navgurukul who had also cleared the interviews were my pillars of strength. Some of them stayed up with me during many late nights, studying with me, and motivating me. It was a tough time but I sailed through because of them.
It was the feeling that I was not good enough to be around my peers that started pulling me down. I failed the training exams and could see the fear getting to me. But as they say, when you lose once, you no longer have the fear to lose. I overcame the fear, I was not yet ready to concede defeat.
As we had joined the training mid-session, I requested for an extension to the authorities. I made a strong case in front of the training authorities to give me an extension because we all joined the training in its last leg and were tested on a new tech stack. When they saw my argument was reasonable, they yielded, and I was given 15 more days.
I knew I had to do this somehow. There was so much pressure that even the fear in my mind was pushed to a corner. I worked day and night and finally made it.
The happiest part is, I am now in Bengaluru, the city of techies – and I am one of them! We are different, we are not from the same economic strata or educational background – but nevertheless, one of them!
Some colleagues are very helpful, most think we are just kids and many respect us because of the journey that we took. However, it is not as seamless as I had thought it would be. A few of us are still struggling. But I am glad that all the hard work paid off.
My job and independence gave me a bitter-sweet moment to live a few months ago. I had enough savings to be able to organise a respectful ‘barsi’ for my mother’s first death anniversary. One girl’s independence in a community paves way for others. I could see the change in the way my relatives received me and my decisions when I went back home this time. From ‘yeh kuch nahi kar payegi (she will achieve nothing)‘ to ‘humein toh pata hi tha Annu bahut kabil hai (We knew Anu is capable of achieving )‘, the transition in their perspective towards me has been radical.
I am not sure when my father will be able to go to Vaishnav Devi again with his future sons-in-law, but for now, he is coming to Bengaluru with my younger sister to shift with me. My sister, who was my source of strength throughout my education and supported my father when I was away, would now be studying at Navgurukul too.
Now that Navgurukul has broken my fears, I want to get back to my town, do something for the women and break all the taboos surrounding them.
For now, I lead mentoring efforts at Navgurukul after my working hours to ensure that the current students code their way out of poverty or other social constraints. If I can, everyone else can too!