LUCKNOW, India – In a country where many girls are still 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 catapulting her into India’s growing middle class.
Verma finished high school at age 7 and earned an undergraduate 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,” Verma said in an interview Sunday, speaking her native language of Hindi.
Sushma lives a modest life with her three younger siblings and her parents – eating, sleeping and studying alongside them in a cramped single-room apartment in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state.
Their only income is her father’s daily wage of less than $3.50 for laboring 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.”
Sushma begins her studies next week at Lucknow’s B. R. Ambedkar Central University, though her father is already ferrying her to and from campus each day on his bicycle so she can meet with teachers before classes begin.
Her first choice was to become a doctor, but she cannot take the test to qualify for medical school until she is 18.
Sushma 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.
For Sushma, her father sold his only pieces of land – 10,000 square feet in a village in Uttar Pradesh – for the cut-rate price of 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 traditionally works to improve rural sewage systems, which gave her a grant of about $12,600.
She is also receiving financial aid from well-wishers and other charities.