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Wendy Shew: Driving change in education

Wendy Shew: Driving change in education

“I believe that our main purpose in life is to leave the world a better place than we found it”

Wendy Shew, from California, US, is the driving force behind Building Education, a non-profit striving to transform lives through education. Inspired by her volunteer work in India and moved by the devastation of the earthquakes of 2015, Shew founded Building Education in 2017 with a vision of providing safe schools and equal opportunities for children worldwide. Beyond her philanthropic endeavors, she is an ultramarathon runner, trekker, and a fashion enthusiast, embodying resilience and compassion in all her pursuits. Nesum Limbu from ApEx talked to Shew about her organization and her projects in Nepal. Excerpts: 

What is the inspiration behind Building Education?

At the age of eight, seeing my mother’s battle with lung cancer instilled in me a profound understanding of mortality and the significance of living a purposeful life. This awareness later drove me to embark on a six-year journey across Asia, Europe, and Africa, where I volunteered extensively. Seeing some of the world’s most impoverished communities, I recognized the transformative power of education. Volunteering at an orphanage in India, I witnessed firsthand how access to education offered marginalized girls a pathway to a better future. Education, I realized, not only empowers individuals but also breaks the cycle of generational poverty, impacting lives for generations to come. This realization propelled me to advocate for education as a fundamental tool for societal transformation, echoing the profound impact it had on my own life.

What are the core values and mission of Building Education?

Building Education’s Mission serves to build safe schools in developing countries to end the cycle of extreme poverty. In collaboration with the local government, schools, and partner organizations, we aim to transform rural villages into prosperous, dignified communities. We believe in a world where every child has an equal opportunity to education.

The first initiative of Building Education took place in a Nepali slum where poverty and death rates were extremely high. Establishing a school was our first move in offering young people a safe haven. Understanding the importance of education, we promoted electricity as a means of increasing access to information and technology. Three years of immersive engagement taught us profound lessons in combating generational poverty, from funding missteps to witnessing transformative change.

Over four years, the metamorphosis of this community was palpable, as children once marginalized in slums became articulate, aspirational individuals. This illuminated the reciprocal nature of education, where growth transcends academics, nurturing dreams, and empowering communities. Upon completing our inaugural village project, the realization dawned that our model could be replicated, prompting us to envision broader impact across Nepal.

How were you drawn to Nepal as a focus area for your work in education?

In October 2014, I was in India and I heard Nepal being described as ‘heaven’ by the locals, prompting a spontaneous decision to make my journey there as a solo traveler. Knowing nothing about Nepal and with no prior research, I was taken aback upon arrival by the striking resemblance of the people to myself, feeling a familial connection with a taxi driver. One memorable instance was when, in a rush to visit Pashupatinath, I found myself without the address of my hostel, leading to a two-hour taxi ride with a non-English-speaking driver until I stumbled upon my destination, profoundly grateful for the assistance of the Nepali people in my time of need.

Despite warnings from others, I felt compelled to reciprocate the kindness I had received when disaster struck Nepal in April 2015, prompting me to seek out volunteering opportunities online. Discovering All Hands & Hearts, an organization directly involved in disaster relief, I promptly signed up and booked a flight to Nepal. Upon arrival, I immersed myself in various volunteer tasks, including clearing rubble, constructing temporary schools and homes, and aiding in displacement camps. All this would later go on to become groundwork for starting Building Education.

Can you tell us about the challenges faced by children in accessing education in rural communities? How does Building Education aim to address them?

Building Education’s projects are focused on uplifting the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities in Nepal, including the Chepang community, an indigenous group with a history of nomadic living in the Himalayan region. In these communities, only one percent of females are literate, with boys starting farming at the age of seven and girls being married off at 14, often facing early motherhood and severe food scarcity.

Last year, our journey to Karnali Province took us to Jumla and Mugu District, where we faced arduous travel, including a 60+ hour drive followed by a five-hour hike to reach Karnali Secondary School. Along the way, encounters with locals struggling with basic math underscored the consequences of educational deprivation. When we arrived at the school, we saw dilapidated structures with a lack of basic amenities like drinking water.

Building Education’s ‘School of Life’ model tackles multidimensional poverty by rebuilding safe facilities, installing water systems, providing energy, and introducing hydroponics for food. By collaborating with local municipalities, we want to ensure access to quality education and infrastructure development, empowering communities in Nepal’s Far West to overcome the challenges they face.

What has Building Education done to improve the quality of education in rural schools and communities?

When building our fourth school, Boomerang Primary School in Dhading, we expanded a five-classroom school into eight classrooms. That way, the school could facilitate one more grade. We provided brand new desks as the students were sitting on the floor to study. We built a playground. We installed a water harvesting tank so that children could have access to drinking water. We partnered with the local municipality to provide additional, better-quality teachers to support the school. They built the road so we could transport materials, and they installed grid electricity in the area.

Remarkably, our support enabled the first university graduate in her family—a girl in pharmaceutical studies—ushering in transformative change for future generations.

What are your future plans and aspirations for Building Education? What are your hopes for the future of the education system in Nepal?

We are currently searching for two different kinds of partner organizations: one that can support teacher training and school management, and the other that can offer curriculum or school learning sessions that let students learn actively and experientially, particularly in order to become engineers and acquire the necessary technical and technological skills.

We hope to make a greater impact in Nepal and reach our goals of 1,000 schools and 1,000,000 lives no matter how long it takes. We are headed to Jajarkot since there was an earthquake there recently. We want to find out what kind of support is needed and what sort of additional infrastructural support is needed in schools that are already there.