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Ishan Mainali ’21 Returns to Nepal for Social Innovation Fellowship


As Ishan Mainali ’21 grew up in what he calls a “Kathmandu bubble” he only heard vague explanations for his homeland’s social and economic problems. Then he came to Hamilton and became involved in the Levitt Center’s Social Innovation Lab where his work finally gave him “the knowledge and vocabulary to think about social problems and . . . potential innovative solutions.”

Khungkhani, Nepal, and surrounding villages
Khungkhani and surrounding villages

Funded by the Levitt Center Social Innovation Fund and the Renyi Leadership Fund and partnering with Build Nepal, an NGO in the area, Mainali set off this summer to explore the problems around educational inequality in Nepal — specifically the disparity between urban and rural communities’ access to educational opportunities and infrastructure.

After a 22-hour bus ride delayed by mudslides and off-road travel, a hike, and a ride in a food-laden flatbed jeep, Mainali and his travelling companion Sagar Shah arrived in the mountain village of Khungkhani. With their host Hira Bahadur Chhantyal they discussed plans to learn about the village and its schoolchildren.

Mainali’s objective in Khungkhani was to observe and understand how community members work together and interact, to better understand their attitudes toward education. Thus he decided to collaborate with Sagar Shah on trying to teach critical-thinking skills in the village school.

Shree Shanti courtyard
Shree Shanti courtyard

The pair met the students of Shree Shanti Madhyamik Vidhyalaya, then began their English class with a lesson based on a more Western and Socratic style than typical in Nepali classrooms. Especially on the first day, many students were taken aback by this change from rote instruction and were fairly reticent; however, Mainali noticed that students grew more interested in their question- and critical-thinking-based approach in younger and younger classes.

They also discovered that the villagers were more interested in asking them questions: where are you from? What are your plans in the village? How long will you stay? Mainali and Sagar were often peppered with welcoming but curious questions, leaving Mainali with a “weird feeling that [he] felt both as an outsider but also a member of the community. The love and affection they had for us was unreal.”

Mainali noticed the disconnect between his own educational expectations and pathway: whereas he was always on a straightforward path from finishing school to college, the villagers see education as an invaluable asset — but not as a way to continue their education further, as they simply lack (or have lacked) those options. The village schoolchildren are expected to finish secondary school, stay with their families until coming of age, then go to another country as a migrant worker and send money back to the village.

Ishan Mainali '21-Volleyball
Villagers play volleyball, a favorite sport.

The idea of education’s role as a minimum requirement to join the workforce is partly dictated by economic necessity. Although valuable medicinal herbs grow wild in the  forests around the village, most of the poor farmers there are unaware that wild herbs can be domesticated or can't afford to risk even part of their plots to domesticate herbs for an uncertain future gain.  Being unaware of alternate possibilities they continue to grow the crops their ancestors grew, which can at least earn them a stable (if extremely modest) income and help feed their families.

Through this experience, Mainali has begun to untangle the complexities of education inequality in Nepal and inequality in general and gained insight into how he can rethink his future projects with these factors in mind. He also able to become immersed in ways of life he’s never experienced, but wants to understand and appreciate.

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