At an age when most students in the United States are worried about acclimating to high school, 14-year-old Geeta Renuse left her hometown in Pune, India, when she accepted a full scholarship to attend five weeks of classes at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In so doing, she became the first member of an organization dedicated to supporting childhood education and health to attend school in the United States.
The Pune-based Ashraya Initiative for Children provides education, meals and transportation to 250 kids, as well as full-time shelter to nearly two dozen. It employs 45 locals, including 17 teachers.
The initiative was founded by Elizabeth Sholyts and five of her friends in 2004. Sholyts' husband, Eric Teasdale, volunteered at Ashraya before they were married. The couple, both 27, gained legal custody of Geeta after she arrived at the initiative in 2005 as an 8-year-old.
Geeta was thrilled at the chance to the United States for herself, having heard much from her adoptive parents and Ashraya volunteers about life in this country.
Inside the classroom, Geeta said she enjoyed the luxury of being able to choose some of her curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy — something which runs contrary to the experience of most students in India, she said.
Geeta chose one class, Media Production, because "it sounded cool," she said.
While at Phillips Exeter Academy Geeta enjoyed taking day trips, including to New York, to Washington D.C. and one to Boston to explore the city's history, said Teasdale.
"I always wanted to be here," said Geeta, noting that she has gotten to know several Americans volunteering their time at Ashraya.
A strong academic record as a student at Ashraya is just one of Geeta's characteristics that Sholyts and Teasdale believe makes her an ideal Phillips Exeter Academy student.
Several of Geeta's characteristics made her a great candidate to bring to the United States, according to Sholyts, who describes Geeta as a young woman mature for her age and insightful.
"She shows a lot of leadership at home and she is someone the other girls look up to. If the kids are not behaving like they could be ... she takes a sister role," said Teasdale.
When not in class, Geeta said hanging out with friends she had made among her Phillips Exeter Academy classmates and doing homework took up much of her time. Skype sessions also kept her in touch with friends in India.
Geeta says she is looking forward to someday returning to the United States to further her studies. According to Geeta, one of the most fun aspects of being in the United States was going to the theatre to see the latest Harry Potter movie, inspired by the popular book series. Geeta has read every one.
Both Sholyts and Teasdale celebrate their achievement in helping to orchestrate Geeta's trip to the United States and the time she spends there nearly as much as they celebrate Geeta's growth in the past several years since joining Ashraya.
"It is definitely a victory, like we could point to this tangibly and say •Here is a kid who did not go to school,'" said Sholyts, adding that time at Ashraya and her experience in the United States has provided Geeta with a "bright future."