By Lorenza Bacino
Dr Tejendra Pherali’s journey to gaining the vital education he passionately craved has been a formidable ascent in every way imaginable.
His earliest memory of school is climbing for one-and-a-half hours up a mountain each day to a dusty village classroom furnished with long wooden benches. He had a piece of slate to write on and a small stick of chalk. The class was made up of older children too – those who’d failed repeatedly and been held back. There were no books until halfway through the year when one book containing Nepali language and some numbers appeared. There was nothing to eat all day. It wasn’t done to bring food from home.
Today Pherali is Senior Lecturer and Program Leader of the Master’s in Education and International Development at the prestigious Institute of Education in London. The trajectory of his appointment can be traced back to a scholarship he was awarded at Sydney in 2004 to study a Master of Education in Research Methodology.
He studied at Sydney after answering an advertisement in a Nepali newspaper by the Australian embassy inviting applications for AusAID-funded university courses. Pherali was offered a place out of hundreds of applications and after a rigorous selection process. He chose the University of Sydney because it was “the oldest and the best”.
The degree instilled an understanding of academic and critical perspectives which has become a platform for the new role he started in September in London, where he is responsible for the welfare and academic achievement of about 100 students from all over the world.
“It’s a new and exciting challenge,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to make my passion my profession. The journey of my life relates to where I belong – in a rural village in Nepal – and now my research is all about educating people in the developing world. I’m feeling inspired and I know I can give back more to my country and my society.”
Pherali’s journey has been full of practical and cultural hurdles that most Westerners would not even imagine, let alone have to deal with. At the age of 11 he left home to go to a different school even further away. He lived with his brother and his wife but felt terribly unwelcome.
“It hurts to think back to that time,” he says quietly. “They were not rich and didn’t give me much food. I had no bed to sleep on either and had to go to a friend’s another half hour walk away to sleep in a corner. I cannot explain why, and at the time it wasn’t painful and I just got on with it. I carried my books everywhere, and studied on the move.”
Coming from a high social class meant his father was able to read and write at a time when the literacy rate in Nepal was less than 2 percent. This was crucial and real inspiration. “I benefited from my social class and my father raised me to believe he could achieve.”
After “mucking up” his education and living pretty much hand-to-mouth for a couple of years, he managed to enrol at the university in Kathmandu. For about six years, Pherali worked 13 hours a day, tutoring children and helping with schoolwork to pay for food and accommodation. He slept about five hours a night during that time. The perseverance paid off and he came top of his year.
In 2004 he won his scholarship to Sydney. “It was a huge educational and culture shock as I was trained very differently in Nepal,” Pherali says. “Sanskrit teaching says you learn from a guru – that’s the only way. The focus is on face-to-face time and if the students don’t do well, it’s because the teachers didn’t teach well.
“So I was lost when I arrived at the University of Sydney. I didn’t know what was expected of me and if you don’t know what support you need, having support doesn’t make sense. I lost confidence and was equating my lack of English with my lack of knowledge.”
His master’s degree supervisor, Dr Rachel Wilson, recognised this difficulty and rescued him. “I was blocked and scared to arrange a meeting with her, which was what I should have been doing. She helped me to unlock my ideas and even helped me access relevant journals from the library to help with my dissertation.”
Wilson says: “The thing that made Tejendra shine was the fact that by the time he arrived in Sydney, he’d already overcome many educational hurdles – like walking miles barefoot to school, through swollen rivers, etc. This seemed to have contributed to his resilience. I knew at once that he was very passionate about educating himself and others. While he had a lot to adjust to as he started his master’s degree, his positive attitude and the fact that he did not falter at challenges and failures always saw him through.
By the time he arrived in Sydney, Tejendra had already overcome many educational hurdles – like walking miles barefoot to school, through swollen rivers. This contributed to his resilience.
“Did you know that when he came to study he brought his pregnant wife? She was very ill for her whole pregnancy. Tejendra cared for her and completed his studies, finishing his dissertation while celebrating the birth of his son, Ajay. I still keep Ajay’s photo on my notice board; if students spot it and enquire I can tell them the story. I am very proud of how far Tejendra has gone.”
On returning to Nepal, Tejendra used the skills he’d acquired at Sydney to benefit his own country. “What I learned at Sydney was academic writing and critical analysis. I took all that back with me and I designed a course on academic writing for Nepali students going to study in English-speaking countries.”
The course became hugely popular and has helped hundreds of students to understand the academic expectations of a Western education system, including how to reference properly, how to write objectively and how to structure an argument.
At the time of Pherali’s return, Nepal was coming out of a decade-long conflict. His research methodology skills came in handy too, as he managed a country-wide project on the role of young people in peace-building and community decision-making for the international organisation, Search for Common Ground.
“This was ground-breaking stuff in my country” Pherali says. “It was a whole new way of relating theoretical knowledge about research with research projects. I’d take students to collect data and we’d discuss how to make sense of it all. It was all about learning through research.”
It’s a long way from Pherali’s early learning experiences, when he would have to throw his books and clothes across a swollen river during the monsoon season, then wade through the water to get to school. All the kids in the mountains knew how and where to cross safely to end up exactly where they needed to be on the other side. “You had to calculate this precisely, otherwise you’d end up being smashed against the rocks by the current,” Pherali says. “That nearly happened to me one day when I was showing off, and one of the older boys dragged me out by my hair and saved my life.”
Today, Pherali has a PhD from Liverpool’s John Moores University under his belt, and from there he moved to the Institute of Education in London. Nevertheless, he claims that his eight-year-old son has read more books than he has. He insists, however, that his experience of education in Nepal was neither meagre nor miserable.
“What we had were strong values and a strong sense of learning,” he says. “Knowledge becomes obsolete, but if kids have a good attitude to cope with new knowledge, I think that is what matters. How much you know ceases to matter as information can be accessed so easily these days. What can’t be accessed so easily is innovation and creativity and that is what we got from our family, from our village.”